I was intrigued when I spotted John Boyne’s Water in The Bookseller, billed as the first in a series of four interlinked novellas each named after the elements, something of a departure from his usual doorstoppers of which I’ve read and enjoyed several including his last, The Echo Chamber. It begins with a woman arriving on an island whose first act is to change her name.
I have a story to tell, it’s true, but I lack the inclination to tell it.
Willow, once Vanessa, is determined to blend into the background. Once the well-groomed wife of a prominent man, used to luxury and an idleness filled with spas and fundraising events, she hacks off her hair and leaves her face bare, settling herself into her spartan rented cottage. Carefully mingling with the islanders in the hope of defusing gossip, she visits both pubs, takes daily walks and obsessively checks her daughter’s social media profile, sending her texts which are more often than not ignored. Naturally the islanders are intrigued, some recognising her as the wife of the disgraced director of the National Swimming Association, jailed for molesting young girls, but while Willow may have dodged the judgement of Dublin’s elite, she’s unable to escape the family tragedy ensuing from Brendan’s abuse, faced with the prospect of her own complicity.
It’s women like us who allow it to happen… … Because staying quiet is easier than causing a fuss, isn’t it?
Boyne has chosen a controversial theme for the first in his planned series, one which may plunge him into social media hot water but he’s no stranger to that. We’re not immediately aware of what it is that Willow is escaping, details of Brendan’s abhorrent behaviour slowly emerging together with the horror of their family story. Over the course of her stay on the island, Willow comes to face her own complicity, the possibility that the choice of an easy life made her wilfully blind to Brendan’s crimes, not least under their own roof. It’s a powerful theme couched within a story unfolded with Boyne’s customary wit but despite the seriousness of its subject it felt a little slight to me; characters, particularly men, are somewhat two-dimensional, not given the space to be fleshed out. That said, I enjoyed it enough to read the second in the series when it appears, keen to see the next theme tackled.
Doubleday: London 9780857529817 176 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)