G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Hardcover (also available as an e-book and an audiobook), 978-0-5255-4235-3, 352 pgs., $26
April 21, 2020
Deep water, indeed: Jeni McFarland asks you to slip under the surface, then let go. The narrative technique requires reader submission, but once you do, the sensation is just short of overwhelming and, nonetheless, absolutely gripping.
There are voices, many and multifaceted, that speak to you in the cool, watery depths of McFarland’s prose. River Bend and the interlocking personal relationships are a spidery web of narrative connectivity between simple folks living complex, flawed lives. The reader could as easily place the overlay of damaged connections on any family or community, and the most delicious aspect of the prose is McFarland’s introspection, as if she were turning over a multifaceted gem in her hands, admiring the colors refracted by a narrative prism.
The story traces Beth Dewitt’s retreat from a failed marriage and lost job in North Carolina. She returns to River Bend, where she grew up as the only bi-racial child in the small Michigan town, trying to negotiate her reentry into the community. She plans to stay with her white father, Earnest, who ends up living with a much younger woman, Linda, whom Beth babysat as a teen. Paula, Linda’s mother, also returns to River Bend, thus setting triangular magnetic poles—Beth, Linda, and Paula, like cardinal points of a compass. Of course, there’s a resurrected scandal and so a new lens through which McFarland offers a revelatory view of family and relationships and a revised vision of self.
The problematic relationship between the three women is shaded by the remnants of male expectation, a razor’s-edge connection that McFarland handles deftly, like spun glass—fragile, delicate, and beautiful. I sensed a tide lapping on a pebbly shore as Linda’s mother returns and becomes a foil for McFarland’s examination of Paula’s past vis-à-vis Linda’s present. It’s an edgy take on modern relationships against the family wreckage of the past.
The wider community is ossified by strictures of social status that, once again, McFarland examines from multiple perspectives to weave a tapestry of expectation, both good and bad, in the interlocking strictures of racism, classism, misogyny, frustration, and diminished expectations.
The reader floats below the surface of McFarland’s drifting viewpoints as if in a fever dream, and that is a bit awkward. She uses what critical theorist Neil Easterbrook calls free indirect discourse, allowing the focalization (also known as viewpoint) to wander from character to character within a chapter and even within scenes. It’s a difficult narrative technique to deploy, but McFarland does so smoothly and in most cases with beautiful prose results.
The style recalls James Joyce in his early years and reflects a post-modernist license that privileges the aesthetic psychodrama of clashing relationships over the normal order of narrative form. McFarland pulls it off with an artistic hand, but I found the delicate narrative technique (“If you think it’s easy,” Easterbrook quotes critical theorist Henry Louis Gates, “try it yourself.”) to be challenging as a reader. It’s as if you’re required to submit to a beautiful, all-consuming narrative drowning. If the reader can succumb to the story the effect is spectacular.
The House of Deep Water is a rewarding read if you submit to the icy plunge and keep your eyes and ears open as you float beneath the surface. There’s much to see, hear, and feel in the deep water because, as Toni Morrison promised, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” That is Beth’s problem, as well as her salvation, and the reader’s reward.
Jeni McFarland holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Houston, where she was a fiction editor at Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. She's an alum of Tin House, a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, and has had short fiction published in Crack the Spine, Forge, and Spry, which nominated her for the storySouth Million Writers Award. She was also a finalist for the 2015 Gertrude Stein Writers Award in Fiction from the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has lived in Michigan and the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two cats. The House of Deep Water is her first book.
Chris Manno earned his doctorate in English at Texas Christian University where he teaches writing. He is the author of the award-winning Texas novels East Jesus and Blood and Remembrance.