"I Held My Breath...": Annette Lapointe on Books About Drowning

Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson: Everything Eden Robinson writes makes my hair stand up. Her first novel is about all kinds of drowning: in sorrow, in alcohol, in the Pacific Ocean. Robinson’s Haisla Protagonist, Lisamarie Hill, tells a complicated ghost story about her grandmother, her brother, Vancouver’s downtown east side, and b’gwus, the sasquatch of the northern BC coast.

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King: “So.
    “In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.”
The title refers to the U.S. Government’s promise that aboriginal people would have rights to their land for “as long as the grass is green and the water runs.” This novel is actually set in Canada, in an Albertan Blackfoot community, but the question still stands: what happens if the water stops running? The water’s stopped by dam construction, and it draws the attention of Coyote, who commences rearranging the world—right down to what’s on TV—to keep the water running.

Salt-Fish Girl by Larissa Lai: Lai’s speculative novel crosses the border from corporate-controlled Washington state into a post-apocalyptic, half-drowned Vancouver. Miranda’s middle-class life keeps bleeding into the life of an ancient Chinese shape-shifter, and she keeps finding fish scales in her bathtub. Lai links water, salt, and fish both with Pacific cultures and lesbian sexuality, and lays out a haunting, half-virtual story.

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje: This novel shares characters with Ondaatje’s more famous The English Patient, but In the Skin of a Lion traces workers’ lives and labour struggles in the first three decades of the 20th century. A nun falls from a bridge, a hotel baron vanishes, and the city of Toronto sets out to build a water works as elaborate as a mythological palace in the midst of the Great Depression. Patrick, who sees his father die while log-driving, and pursues his lover across a frozen lake, first digs the tunnels for the water-works, then dives into Lake Ontario to get back in, coming the other way.

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews: I love everything Toews writes. Her ability to capture the frustrating ordinariness of the Winnipeg poverty line makes what could be drab stories funny, and funny stories dark. The Flying Troutmans asks what happens when one person drowns in the place of another, and whether the family can survive it. Two sisters, a car full of kids, and a low-budget road trip keep returning to the moment when their father drowned, and why it happened.

Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley: Findley’s re-telling of Noah’s ark takes all the kid-friendly versions of the story and shakes them until they curl up and cry. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s told partially from the point of view of Mrs Noah’s cat. What kind of God, Findley asks, would kill everyone? What does it mean, really, to put all of the animals into an ark? How long can you live like that? And what if it never stops raining?

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: This isn’t the obvious choice for an Atwood novel about drowning, but it’s decidedly the one I prefer. (You can go read Surfacing if you want. I won’t stop you.) The Robber Bride tells three interwoven stories of middle-aged women who lost their lovers to an almost mythological femme-fatale, Zenia. Major Canadian rivers become shades of lipstick. Boats carry people into and out of lives. The water is always there, just below the surface of the story, and occasionally a character vanishes into it, temporarily or forever.

Burning Water by George Bowering: Canadian exploration histories are usually treated as epic adventures, but they rarely include Captain George Vancouver. Bowering takes up Vancouver’s exploration of Nootka Sound, the waterways of the B.C. lower mainland, and the Gulf Islands, mixing mythology, humour, and metafiction to make a magical, sometimes romantic story of colonial expansion in the Pacific northwest. (Someone does drown. In the sea. That’s all the advance detail you get.)


Annette Lapointe holds a PhD in Contemporary Canadian Literature and teaches English at Grande Prairie Regional College. Her first novel, Stolen, was nominated for a Giller Prize and was the Winner of two Saskatchewan Book Awards (First Book Award and Saskatoon Book Award). A Finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, as well as being cited as a Globe & Mail Top 5 First Fiction choice, Stolen also garnered Ms. Lapointe a Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer award. Annette has lived in Saskatoon, Quebec City, St John’s, South Korea, Winnipeg, and currently resides in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Much of the first draft of Whitetail Shooting Gallery was written in a fried chicken joint in Jinju, South Korea.

October 15, 2012
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