Water by John Boyne

Imagine my delight at seeing a new John Boyne book on the shelves in my local library. I hadn’t heard of it so perhaps that was why it was sitting there quietly. On getting to the end of it, it’s a novella so I read it in one sitting, I learnt that this is the first in a series based on the elements and that the next one will be Earth, Fire and Air to come in the future. An interesting idea.

You are in no doubt about the fact that this book focuses on water because the front cover and the rather lovely end pages have a picture of water – I imagined it was the sea – above it and below but I wasn’t sure how it was going to feature in the book. A recent book club read was Go as a River by Shelley Read and there water in the form of a river ran through the book but also represented birth and rebirth although in this book it also means death.

Vanessa Carvin, renamed Willow Hale, escapes to an island off Ireland to heal after a traumatic breakdown of her life, marriage and relationships with her children when her husband was jailed for abuse of minors. In a very real-life situation, he was a swimming coach and worked for the Swimming Federation in Ireland, coaching their Olympic swimmers.

The islanders are characters in their own rights, from Mrs Duggan, larger than life, nosey busybody to the barman who is also an incomer and who killed his wife when drunk driving. There is a boy who is a gifted footballer but isn’t interested in playing and a farming son who seems doomed to stay on the island. And of course, there is the priest who is from Benin City in Nigeria, another incomer. In some ways the island is no different to other places and in others it is. The islanders, led by Mrs Duggan no doubt, see off a gay couple who rented the cottage before Willow because they were an abomination.

The place, time and space is healing for Willow – we don’t get any interior thoughts or monologues from her, but a story revealed through her interactions with other characters. She doesn’t offer forgiveness to the barman when he reveals his troubles and she doesn’t offer her husband an ounce of forgiveness when he rings her from prison as if nothing has changed. He is in denial about his behaviour even though his daughter committed suicide because he abused her. She drowned and so here is one part that the water plays in the tale.

Walking, reading and time alone do heal as does Willow’s relationship with her daughter Rebecca who also carries the guilt about not believing her sister Emma’s story about the abuse she recieves from their father. I wasn’t sure how Willow came to understand whether she colluded in the abuse of their daughter, to a degree she did by not listening to what Emma was asking of her, a lock on her bedroom door, and that did leave me wanting a bit more.

The writing is sublime – sparse, to the point and in first person. There wasn’t a point where it slipped. Willow is what I would consider a typical, feisty Boyne character as shown through some of the dialogue and the characters of the island are created to be characters that we all know and in some cases love.

The next in the series is Earth and focuses on Evan Keogh’s story, the boy who was a gifted footballer but didn’t want to play. I understand that all four books will focus on abuse and will then be joned together to make one book. I had thought Earth might be about the farming son who has to stay on the island to run the family farm. Too obvious, perhaps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *