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Elizabeth Black’s “The Drowning House”

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Drowning HouseObserver books editor David Duhr recently reviewed Houston author Elizabeth Black’s debut The Drowning House for the magazine, and found that the Galveston-set novel, despite flashes of insight and descriptive prowess, suffers from its main character’s “histrionics,” its author’s “awkward” first-person narration, and a color-blind (not in a good way) depiction of life on the island.

The novel, Duhr writes,

…offers the ravages of water, fire and wind, and a portrait of Galveston struggling to disentangle itself from a romanticized past.

But the book falls flat. Black heaps far more gravitas on her characters than they can support; the mysteries fizzle undramatically; and narrator Clare is despicable, an overgrown child—which would be fine, if Black would allow us to freely dislike her. But a growing trend in fiction commands writers to craft characters who are likeable and sympathetic. It’s terrible advice—many of literature’s most memorable characters are neither—but Black gives in. Yes, Clare may be a ragingly selfish malcontent. But! Her child died! And though that child is nothing more than an obvious plot device, how can you dislike a grieving mother?

Read Duhr’s entire review here.

Meanwhile, Joy Tipping at The Dallas Morning News found the book “thrillingly evocative and witty,” even if Black does try to “stuff too much into one book [...] leaving a lot of strings either tangled or untied too late.”

Tipping’s review is here.

Farther north, the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s Meganne Fabrega notes:

Black, a poet, takes great care to construct each paragraph to reflect the complicated physical and emotional landscape of Clare’s hometown. Unfortunately, her writing style often overshadows the plot, sending the reader to and fro between characters and side stories that never satisfactorily come to fruition.

Read Fabrega’s take here.

Have you read The Drowning House? Pitch your two cents into the comments.

 

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.