Erin Bartels – The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water

Erin Bartels – The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water

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.

J.M. Monaco – How We Remember

JM-monaco-how-we-remember
J.M. Monaco – How We Remember

When her mother is about to die, Joanna returns home in the US after years of living in London. What she was not prepared for are the memories that come back to her and that are closely linked to her childhood and teenage years:  the plans to run away from home together with her brother, the times when her uncle approached and molested her, her way out of middle-class life, the beginning of her academic career and the realisation that she will never fit in and that she is simply not good enough to marry a son of a well-off family even though she excels at an Ivy-League University. A week of mourning and memories that not all are welcome to Jo and her family.

What I liked about the book was how easily one could sympathise and bond with Jo and thus follow her thoughts. The springing back and forward between the events around the mother’s death and funeral and her memories helped to keep the story lively and authentic; some words or people just trigger memories that you can neither prevent from coming to the surface nor control in the extent that they hit you.

The novel addresses several interesting topics that are worth pondering about: what keeps a family together and why do some women over and over again forgive all their husbands’ wrongdoings? Is there some kind of escape from your family, can you ever really cut the links that were established by birth? Coming from a certain class, working hard and doing everything right, what keeps you still from really belonging and being considered an adequate match? A lot of food for thought, especially when you share the protagonist’s background and visions of life. A quiet novel that is perfect for calmer days.

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

liese-ohalloran-schwarz-the-possible-world
Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

Being invited to a birthday party isn‘t something that comes easy for Ben. Too many things can happen, all is so unpredictable with other boys, but his mother can convince him to go nevertheless. And then, the most unexpected happens: a murderer comes to the party and kills the two mothers in the house as well as all of the kids, except for Ben. In hospital, Lucy can only determine that he hasn’t been hurt physically, but there seems to be a kind of trauma since Ben wants to be called Leo and remembers life with a certain Clare. At an elderly home somewhere in town, Clare is fighting again against having to socialise. Her life alone in a recluse hut and later with her foster child Leo has simply been perfect. How come Ben remembers being Clare’s son Leo?

Liese O‘Halloran Schwarz‘ novel is one of the rare books that you just open and then get completely lost in. I read it in just one sitting because I simply did not want to get away from her characters. It is bittersweet, often melancholic, but you see the good heart the characters have and you are convinced that there must be something good coming from them. It is a perfect feel-good book, even though it tells harsh reality in an emergency room and the story of a child given away by his mother.

I liked the alternate narration of the three protagonists, even though it did not completely make sense at the beginning, you slowly manage to put together the puzzle pieces that form a new and complete picture. All three are very sensitive characters, misunderstood by the people around them and therefore lonely. I guess these kind of people recognize each other what helps them to find each other. What also links them is the fact that they are highly intelligent and question the world: why do the things have to be the way they are and why don’t people change something about it?

A beautifully written story about non-mainstream characters who can easily be overlooked.