Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton

Yes, yes, it's been a while, I know.

Well, amongst other things, I've been doing lots of reading. Latterly, this has been The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton, by Caroline Smailes. Regular visitors to this blog (denoting use of the past tense, namely, when there was something on this blog to actually visit with any kind of regularity) may remember me reviewing her previous novels - mainly because they've been bloody good, but also just a little bit because she's been one of my bloggy friends since before I first set up this place.

So, true to form, I thought I'd write a review of this latest offering. Which means I need to try and remember how I might write a review. Well, before that even, it means I need to remember how I might actually write.

Here goes, anyway. I don't think this contains spoilers.

The story revolves around a local swimming baths, apparently built over a spring with special healing properties. Having lain derelict for a while, the baths are taken over by three individuals calling themselves 'water-healers', reopened, and renamed The Oracle. Its reputation soon spreads: paying visitors queue up as tales abound that all sorts of ailments have been cured by the waters within. As talk of the place grows, scepticism amongst many in the local community turns to curiosity and, in some cases, to a certain desperation that their ills and misfortunes - and the wayward turns their lives have taken - might be miraculously put right.

Perhaps inevitably, altogether darker, more troubling rumours about the goings-on at the swimming baths circulate and persist, and these turn out not to be without justification.

This fantastic-sounding setting becomes the stage for a number of all-too-human dramas to be played out: firstly that of Laurel, coerced into applying for the job of receptionist by her mother. It suits them both - Laurel for the chance to get some time away from looking after all her siblings, and her mother for the opportunity to have extra money coming into the house. As time passes, she becomes drawn into the peculiar happenings at The Oracle, and its water-healers, far more than she would have expected or wanted.

The central character, Arthur Braxton, makes his first appearance in the story at the expense of a cruel and humiliating joke at the hands of school bullies. The very nature of this humiliation is heightened thanks to the now-ubiquitous sharing of (too much) information on social media: feeling totally rejected by his peers and having long been ignored by his family, he seeks solace in the esoteric confines of The Oracle since finding he has nowhere else to turn. His story becomes woven into that of Laurel's, and others besides.

The weirdness of the setting, as it is steadily revealed (and which draws on Greek myth, though lightly and wryly) is in sharp, almost binary contrast to the lives of the protagonists, with their so-very-earthy concerns. An already-noted skill of the author is her ability to make her characters vividly tangible and real: imperfect and blemished, and always believable enough that I can wince or rejoice at their reactions to the situations and decisions they face. These two contrasting elements, deftly melded together, are what gives The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton its dynamism, not to mention its poignancy.

Throughout, a number of themes prevail, in sometimes bleak circumstances. Big themes: love, hope, acceptance, expectation, disappointment and, ultimately, redemption (as well as a hefty dollop of the sometimes extreme steps people take when self-preservation is their only concern). From the irrational, collective 'fear of the other' which eventually leads to its desperate embrace, to the delicate agonies (painfully detailed) of teenage love: all combine into a narrative as poignant and powerful as it is mischievous.
Needless to say, if you got this far, I would recommend it.


Anna MR said...

Hurrah, you are back.

And how very like you, and so very sweet, to open after a bit of an absence by praising the work of someone else. You have a knack of writing these reviews, you know; I would very much like to read this book, but I think getting hold of it here in the North Pole is not going to be easy. Yes I know there's Amazon and you can get everything there – but I am trying not to use my visa card at all (At. All!), bookshops don't stock a great deal of English literature, and libraries are even less likely to cover a representative sample of contemporary writers in English. So it remains to be seen whether I will manage to find it. However, your account of it gives pleasant food for the imagination. I am discovering, in other words, that the next best thing perhaps to reading a good book is to imagine how it would unfold.

Caroline is really rather prolific, isn't she? I don't know her personally (I mean, not even here in blogoland) but I do recall her first novel being published a few years ago, and this is now, what, the third since then? This, I suppose, is also one of the beauties of the social media (although obviously nowadays it's more FB than blogging): you see the lives of other people unfolding. Life can be so very interesting. And indeed is, not just "can be" – although sometimes it's difficult to keep it in mind or experience it.

I am glad you are back, young housut – no pressure, obviously, to start blogging on a fantastically daily basis. Although it would be nice.


Anna MR said...

Whoah. I tried to come here, you know, and forgot the "the" from the name of your fine house. And lo, there is someone else who's named their place "trouserpress"(sans the). Only they have no posts at all.

So you know, what's a year's break here amongst friends.


trousers said...

Hello Ms Mr,

And thank you. Your comment has answered my (not explicitly-asked) question, in that I was wondering whether my words would be of any use in arousing interest in the book in question. Mainly because it's been so long since I have done any writing on here, and so it was hard to read my review back and objectively tell whether I'd done the book any sort of justice, let alone sound like it's worth reading (which indeed it is).

So I'm quite happy to take your word for it :)

This is C's fourth novel, there's also a novella and an ebook and a couple of other things she's contributed to, if memory serves. All have been good, though I think my favourite was 'Like Bees To Honey', which I wrote about here a couple of years ago. It was definitely something I needed to read and really made me think about some things in a different way.

Thanks for the welcome back - no, no pressure, it's hard to say when and how often I'll post - but now that I've finally deposited more words here, maybe it'll be easier to do so every once in a while.

I may check out this other similarly-named blog site that you've happened upon...


Zhoen said...

Sorry to have missed your update for so long. I do hope you get to another post before next year.

Alexandra said...

xxxxx :)

Tobias said...