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.

Lily King – Writers & Lovers

lily king writers & lovers
Lily King – Writers & Lovers

Casey Peabody has always wanted to be a writer. At 31, she finds herself waiting tables, living in a run-down garage and with several debt collectors on her heels. For six years she has worked on her novel but somehow it does not work out, too high the pressure from real life. When her mother died a couple of months before, she not only lost her confidant, but constantly feels the big hole this loss left behind in her. Then she meets Oscar, a successful writer and widowed father of two, who seems to be the way out of her misery: a lovely home, stable relationship, two adorable boys, a life without worries. But it does not feel right, especially since there is Silas, too, quite the opposite of Oscar. When Casey is fired from the restaurant and her landlord tells her that the house is to be sold, the anxiety that has accompanied her for years becomes unbearable.

Raise your hand is you never dreamt of writing a novel. Isn’t that what we as avid readers long for? To intrigue others with what is lurking within ourselves and, of course, to be praised and complimented for our artistic capacities. Well, that’s just one side of being a writer, many more authors will actually have to face a life just like Casey: never to know if you can make the ends meet, frustrated because the writing does not move on, the words do not come, taking on any job just to survive and organising the writing around working hours. Lily King has painted quite a realistic picture of a novelist’s situation in “Writers & Lovers”. Yet, that’s by far not all the novel has to offer.

Her protagonist belongs to the generation who struggles to grow-up. They have been promised so much, they were full of energy in their twenties, but now, hitting 30, they have to make a decision: giving up their dreams for a conservative and boring but secure life just like the one their parents lead or going on with a precarious living that feels totally inadequate. No matter how they decide, it could be the wrong choice and the fear of not picking the right thing paralyses them, an overwhelming anxiety takes over control making them incapable of moving on or doing anything at all. They are stuck in a never-ending rat race which covers all areas of their life. Casey is the perfect example of her generation, highly educated, intelligent, good at dealing with people but nevertheless full of doubts about herself and frustrated by the constant setbacks.

I totally adored the novel, it is somehow a coming-of-age at a later age novel. The characters are authentically represented, the emotional states are wonderfully conveyed and thus easy to follow. Even though there is quite some melancholy in it, I did not feel saddened since it also provides a lot of hope just never to give up since all could turn out well in the end.