Novelist Kendra Bennan’s first book That Summer, which was based on her childhood experiences at her grandfather’s cabin on Hidden Lake, was a great success. Yet, the writing for the second does not really advance. The reason is an anonymous letter she got accusing her of not having told the truth in her first novel. Yet, she did write what and how she remembered it all. She returns to the cabin in order to find the necessary calm. However, her plan does not really work, her thoughts centre around the anonymous writer and of course around her childhood friend Cami who has been missing for some time. Only Cami’s brother and their parents are there and Andreas, her German translator, who unexpectedly turned up and moves in with her. Weeks full of tension, of things unsaid that now come to the surface and change Kendra’s view on much more than just that summer.
It is the first book that I read by Erin Bartels, an award winning novelist whom, regrettably, I haven’t noticed before. “The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water” is a kind of coming-of-age story, it is a mystery and it is a reflection on the connection between fact and fiction, on how much of a writer’s experiences can be found in his writing and to what extent they are allowed to exploit their real life for their work – and the people around them who might recognise themselves or be recognised by others.
“I was lying to myself about why I decided to finally return to Hidden Lake. Which makes perfect sense in hindsight. After all, novelists are liars.”
After the disturbing letter which she simply cannot ignore, Kendra returns to the cabin where she spent her summers, the only time she was carefree. Finishing the novel that is due plays a role but much more importantly for her is finding out what happened that summer of which she has disturbing memories she hasn’t ever been able to overcome. By confronting Cami’s brother, she hopes to elucidate the events. Soon, she has to comprehend that reality is a lot more complex and people have much more complicated and contradictory feelings than she had anticipated. That a lot of secrets are also connected to that place does not make it easier to untangle it all.
“ ’Writing is about making sense of the human condition,’ he said. ‘It’s about communicating truth, which is useful and helpful to people on a far more elemental level than a lot of stuff we think of as necessary to life.’ ”
Apart from the questions of what happened that summer, of how different characters remember the events and of what has brought this strange character of the translator – of whose intentions I was suspicious all the time – to that place, the novel is strongest when it comes to the relationship between fact and fiction. I think it is quite natural that creativity avails itself of experiences, yet, to what extent should a writer actively make use of his or her real life? Changing names and places does not always alter people beyond recognition, so don’t they have the right of their own story? Slowly, this issue becomes more and more crucial to the plot.
Wonderfully written, suspenseful not to the extent of a mystery novel but surely to keep you reading, a great read that I thoroughly enjoyed, first and foremost because it made me ponder a lot even after closing it.