The Drowning House

Elizabeth Black’s The Drowning House Is a Book Gasping For Breath


David Duhr

A version of this story ran in the February 2013 issue.

There’s a bit of conventional wisdom in literary criticism circles that goes something like, “Review the book the author wrote, not the book you wish the author had written.” Don’t attack a writer for not catering to your predilections. Don’t lay into James Patterson for failing to advocate gun control; don’t expect E.L. James to take a stand against sex trafficking; and if Elizabeth Black wants to write about the facile woes of an overwrought group of privileged Galvestonians, let her do so in peace. “Try to understand what the author wished to do,” John Updike once wrote, “and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

I tried, John. I really did.

Here’s what the author of The Drowning House wished to do: write the story of a grief-stricken, headstrong woman, Clare Porterfield, who returns to her island hometown and gets wrapped up in the mysteries of her past, and those of Galveston’s wealthiest family. These mysteries dovetail, stretching back to the Hurricane of 1900, and Clare hopes that solving them will bring her peace.

It’s a premise with potential. What reader doesn’t enjoy a strong-willed narrator? Who doesn’t like the slow unpeeling of mysteries, or the moody atmospherics of a disaster that continues to inform a community 90 years later? (The story is set in 1990.) Houstonian Black’s debut 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?

After 10 years away, 30-ish photographer Clare is summoned back to her hometown by Will Carraday, Galveston’s wealthiest businessman, to organize an exhibition of historical photos. On the side, Clare investigates the connections between her own emotionally distant family and the Carradays, some of which go back to the late 19th century. Meanwhile, she (sort of) grieves for her daughter Bailey, killed at age 5 in a swing-set accident.

Galveston proves as much a character as Clare, and in spots, Black brings it to life with flair. “For some,” she writes, “the potential for catastrophe makes island life irresistible. No one acknowledges the threat directly, but the uncertainty persists, and it acts like a drug. It heightens the senses.” Still, the novel’s Galveston is one in which minorities do not figure (excepting the occasional “brown man” gardener), despite making up more than 40 percent of the island’s actual population. Aside from a racially ambiguous servant who says things like, “Is that why you here? Baby, tell me that not so,” Black’s Galveston is white and moneyed, and the characters’ troubles are the troubles of the white and moneyed. Though she’s under no obligation to write a racially representative novel, in failing to paint a convincing portrait of the community Black calls her own authority into question.

She also stumbles over the first-person narration. Here’s the awkward manner by which we’re presented with Clare’s occupation and task: “Jules, my agent, would have said more positive things. That I was a young photographer whose star had risen suddenly. That I had been invited to Galveston to choose material for an exhibition. […] And it was true.”

But it’s Clare’s exhaustingly narcissistic histrionics that really sink The Drowning House. In a church parking lot as services let out, she tells us, “Either [the parishioners] were absorbed in what they were doing or they chose not to acknowledge my presence.”

It must be the former, right? Who among us would fail to acknowledge someone sitting in a car in a parking lot? And in one of the book’s most overcooked scenes, we read, “My legs gave way and I sank to the floor. What had my life amounted to, after all? Thirty years, a failed marriage, a dead child. What remained?”

Blinkered by her own melodrama, Clare lags dozens of pages behind the reader in solving her story’s mysteries, and Black’s attempts to maintain suspense are painfully orchestrated. When, four-fifths of the way through the novel, Clare finally decides to search for clues in a guesthouse on her own family’s property, she exposits, “I remembered then a place I could go that might offer up information … Some reluctance I couldn’t account for had kept me from it.”

The story finally comes to a close with a silly bang, freeing Clare to return to her real life—and freeing us to hope for better things from Black in the future. If she can attune herself to character and plot as finely as she has to atmosphere, her next outing should offer a more immersive experience.