"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review #3: The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve

The Weight of Water simultaneously follows the story of a real-life murder in late 1800s New Hampshire and Jean, a photojournalist who is doing a story on the murders. Shreve bounces back and forth between Jean's present-tense narrative of her journey to the island of Smuttynose where the murders took place, and a letter written by Maren, the sole survivor of the brutal killings, on the eve of her death in 1899.

The story of the murders is set against the backdrop of the Isles of Shoals, an outcropping of stark, windswept islands off the coast of New Hampshire. Maren lives on Smuttynose with her husband John and later, her surly sister Karen, her beloved brother Evan, Evan's lovely young wife Anethe, and an occasional boarder. The men make their living by the sea, the women staying behind on their lonely island, and Shreve's description of the cold, the damp, the endless boredom, and the skull-crushing isolation made me physically uncomfortable. I purposely tried to distance myself from becoming too involved in Maren's story; I was not often successful.

The killings are brutal - Karen and Anethe are found hacked to death with an axe, and Maren is discovered hiding in a cave - and as you read Maren's memories of the time leading up to that fateful night, you cringe, knowing that what's coming will change things forever. But I found myself cringing just as much for Jean. Her alcoholic-poet husband Thomas, their young daughter, her solid brother in law Rich, and his beautiful but cold Irish girlfriend are along for the ride on Jean's journey to discover what really happened all those years ago. Watching her watch her husband drift in and out of their life, watching him blossom in the presence of the younger woman, watching him shut down when she appears...it's beautifully painful.

This is a quiet book, one to be read on a rainy Saturday afternoon without interruption. Maren's quiet struggles, Jean's quiet fears, Thomas' quiet drinking, even Rich's quiet solidarity all come together to reach a stunning and elegantly written conclusion.

*As an aside, this was made in to a movie in 2003, starring Catherine Bigelow and Sean Penn, featuring Elizabeth Hurley, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

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