Endlessly Flowing: Five Books on Water

Watermark, Christy Ann Conlin's latest book, has been a favourite this fall among our editorial team here at 49th Shelf. These spooky, rich, and Gothic tales are gripping and immersive, the entire collection so propulsive. Here, Conlin recommends a handful of other titles that share her own book's preoccupation with water. 

*****

Hunting Down Home, by Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil, a prolific writer originally from Cape Breton, has lived in the UK for 23 years. Water plays a symbolic role in all her books. “It was a dark shame, floating just beneath the meniscus of history and story and folklore, like the whale I once saw from a plane as we banked into Brisbane, passing beneath the surface of the sun-stuck water, heading up to the Great Barrier Reef,” remembers Morag in McNeil’s first novel, Hunting Down Home. Set partially in Cape Breton, the book tells the story of Morag and her last year living on Boularderie, an island separating the Bras d’Or Lake from the Cabot Strait. It is a rugged island which is a world unto itself, as is the Bras d’Or Lake, an inland sea in Nova Scotia. Morag is abandoned there by her mother, who has left to see the world. She grows up isolated, raised by her grandparents, hunting and fishing. Water and coastal life define this novel, dual symbols, enclosing barriers, and vast endless freedom. 

*

Simple Recipes, by Madeleine Thien

Simple Recipes is Thien’s breathtaking first book and story collection. My heart breaks every time I read the title story. Thien is a sensuous writer, and opens and closes this story with her signature lyricism: the sound of rice being endlessly rinsed, cloudy water finally running clear, a purification ritual, a practical ceremony connecting an immigrant family in 1980s Vancouver to a world left behind. The story is a first person recollection from an adult daughter haunted by her father, a displaced and disoriented man, far from his homeland, bound to the past through the ritual of making rice and fish, which he teaches to his daughter. This memory captures the sad love between father and daughter, a gulf of time between them. “How simple it should be. Warm water running over, the feel of the grains between my hands, the sound of it like stones running along pavement. My father would rinse the rice over and over, sifting it between his fingertips, searching for impurities, pulling them out. And then, to be satisfied with what remains.”

*

Ocean, by Sue Goyette

Our elders insisted the ocean was still there.

That we were born with a seed of it and when we spoke, 

 

its waves pressed against our words for a further shore. 

But we had let ourselves become sub-divided and sub-urban. 

 

So writes Sue Goyette in Ocean. This exquisite collection of poems, a mediation and study of the sea, is a testimony to the power of language which ebbs and flows, creating a rhythmic and undulating cascade of poetry. She recasts the sea as a personified body, where water is an elemental force, but must eventually meet a shoreline. Goyette re-forms society as that place where earth meets sea, the sand and rock at the edge, this strange liquid creature which swells, crashes, throbs, billows…lies silent as we bow in its presence, in awe, in fear, in majesty, in communion with its complex nature. It’s an elemental force at once trustworthy and reliable while always mysterious and unexpected, the keeper of ancient secrets and wisdom.

*

“Adult Beginner 1” from Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod

MacLeod is such a skilful writer, a master of the unexpected. If you’ve ever dreaded swimming lessons or been afraid of water, just the title of this story will evoke a primal fear, of its power both as a natural force and a reminder of how deeply our anxieties submerge in our psyche. From the first page we are immediately pulled into the current of a night with Stace, a young woman standing on a hotel roof, about to dive into the river below, her life spent trying to impress parents, herself, and now a guy, a life spent confronting her dread of water, a fear of living. “There was a force that lived inside of all deep water—she knew it intimately—a starving, swelling power that pulled everything down into itself,” writes MacLeod in this brilliant and deeply disturbing story from his Giller short-listed collection. The action surges between real time and the past and we wonder just how much worse things can get. MacLeod builds a vibrating danger that we don’t see until it’s upon us. MacLeod is a brave, big-hearted stylist, navigating the waters of terrors, love and longing.

*

Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson

No study of water in literature would be complete without Eden Robinson’s first novel, set in the Pacific Northwest, a world which is simultaneously contemporary and ancient. With a first chapter titled, “Love Like the Ocean,” we know from the outset the role water plays. “You can tell when you’re getting close to the Kitlope watershed because the water changes colour. At Kemano, the water is still a normal dark green, but the closer you get to Kitlope, the milkier the water becomes, until all around you the water is the colour of pale jade…. When you go up the Kitlope, Mom said, you be polite and introduce yourself to the water.” Hot springs, rivers, ocean, drinking water from streams, rain, dramatic channels and shorelines cut through the narrative set five hundred miles north of Vancouver in Kitamaat, a reserve in the homeland of the Haisla people. With Robinson’s unmistakable narrative blend of humour, history and the otherworldly, we follow the story of Lisamarie, a young woman who has always been unlike others. She tells her story as she heads up in the Douglas Channel in a speedboat, searching for her brother who has drowned, barrelling towards a dead reckoning with truth.  

*

About Watermark

In these evocative and startling stories, we meet people navigating the elemental forces of love, life, and death. An insomniac on Halifax’s moonlit streets. A runaway bride. A young woman accused of a brutal murder. A man who must live in exile if he is to live at all. A woman coming to terms with her eccentric childhood in a cult on the Bay of Fundy shore.

A master of North Atlantic Gothic, Christy Ann Conlin expertly navigates our conflicting self-perceptions, especially in moments of crisis. She illuminates the personality of land and ocean, charts the pull of the past on the present, and reveals the wildness inside each of us. These stories offer a gallery of both gritty and lyrical portraits, each unmasking the myth and mystery of the everyday.

October 28, 2019
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