11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The Drowning House is a novel in which dark secrets are revealed, one after another, like bullets from a machine gun. Unfortunately, it takes too long for the firing to begin, and unlike bullets, the revelations have no impact.
Clare Porterfield is a successful photographer who grew up in Galveston, where she returns after an absence of many years to select archived photographs for an exhibition. She has grown apart from her husband Michael, probably because she says things to him like "I want to hear your ideas but I don't want advice," as if the poor guy is supposed to know whether his suggestion of an idea will be construed as advice. Clare also makes condescending remarks about Michael's inability to understand her photography and belittles his "conventional" taste. Their marriage is rocky in part because Clare blames herself for their daughter's death, although Michael obviously does not. Clare is similarly consumed with grievances about her deceased father and unloving mother. She's constantly picking at the scabs of her past, refusing to let them heal.
The novel takes its title from an apocryphal story about the house adjacent to Clare's childhood home -- identified in Galveston guide books as the Carraday House -- in which a seventeen-year-old girl is said to have drowned during a hurricane in 1900. When Clare was still living at home, she spent much of her time visiting Patrick Carraday, "the brother I never had, then later, something more." Then, when she was fourteen, she and Patrick shared a dark moment, the details of which are slowly revealed as the story progresses. After that event, Clare is sent to the Ohio to live with her grandmother and Patrick goes to Europe. In the present, despite being married and not having seen Patrick since they were young, and in the absence of any evidence of interest on Patrick's part in renewing their relationship, Clare can't stop mooning over him. She wants another life, the life with Patrick she imagines she would have had if not for their separation. Clare will eventually discover the difference between fantasy and reality.
The novel's first half is told in long passages of expository writing that the reader must wade through while wondering if they will lead to an actual story. Eventually we learn that the Carradays are keeping a dark secret about their family while Clare's mother is keeping a dark secret about Clare's family. By the time the secrets finally emerged, one bombshell revelation following another, I had stopped caring. Actually, I never started caring, so the blockbuster secrets struck me as contrived melodrama.
I don't need to like a novel's characters because unlikable characters can furnish insights into human nature, but I learned nothing from tedious Clare. It's understandable that Clare is grieving the loss of her daughter. It's understandable that she injects her pain into nearly every conversation she has. It's understandable that she thinks "that grieving the loss of my child would be my life's work." It's understandable that she resents her father, her mother, Patrick's father, and just about everyone in Galveston. But it is just as emotionally draining to read about woe-drenched people who are buttoned up in an insular world of pain as it is to interact with them in real life. It doesn't help that Clare is condescending, not just to her husband but to almost everyone (she wonders, for instance, whether the names Shakespeare and Homer "mean anything" to "harried mothers ... and grizzled homeless men" as if mothers and the homeless never graduate from high school).
Elizabeth Black's descriptions of Galveston are informative and colorful. She writes wonderfully rhythmic sentences, but they had a tendency to lull me to sleep. Black strives to fill every sentence with deep meaning. After awhile, her observational prose ("It's interesting to watch the very rich play the role of host") and earnest questions ("Have you ever discovered yourself in someone else's snapshot?") and reflective comments ("A child is a chance to be someone new and different") become grating. In fact, if I had to describe The Drowning House in a single word, "grating" is the word I would choose.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I read The Drowning House while I was on business travel. Set in Galveston, Texas, the story revolves around photographer Clare Porterfield and her return to Galveston following a family tragedy. As the book unfolds, the reader learns more about her tragedy through Clare's reunion with her family and friends and her photographic exhibition assignment.
During this process, Clare reexamines her past and researches her family's history. She learns about her family's connection to the Carraday family and we enter into a dark mystery deeply intertwined with the local peculiarities and history of Galveston.
I haven't been to Galveston but I found the setting vibrant and rich, even alive at times. Perhaps it could be best described as atmospheric with a distinct aura. When you strip away the setting though, the characters seemed annoying at best and I did not develop an affinity for any of them, particularly because they tended to be so dysfunctional. The story had its charm and mystery but it failed to completely pull me in. However, I did consider this a pleasant read and the denouement was satisfying. I would recommend this book, especially if you are interested in Galveston and its history.
18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2012
Elizabeth Black's debut novel, "The Drowning House," is set in Galveston, Texas, in the present day with memories of the past. The protagonist, Clare, has come home to The Island after many years away. She's been asked to work on some archival photographs since she is a renowned photographer. She is happy to flee the debris of her marriage, which fell apart in the aftermath of a terrible accident.
Once in Galveston, Clare finds her mother, Eleanor, the same as always: prim, busy, quick to criticize. Clare has always been the invisible child, the one who watches. Even as an adult, she continues her reclusive habits, trying to find a way out of her grief and to locate her former partner in childhood pranks, Patrick.
Black captures the aura of Galveston, from its heyday as a resort city through the hurricane of 1900 and the rebuilding after it. All of the details about the city help to focus Clare on the storm inside of her, the reasons for her unhappiness with life as she knows it. She uncovers layer after layer of secrets about the people she thought she knew.
The ending is a punch after the reader has been lulled into The Island's way of life and The Islanders' way of looking at things. The minor characters, Faline and Otis, Harriet, Ty, everyone contributes something meaningful to the mystery and the end result.
The denouement is satisfying as well as a little mysterious. In this first novel, Elizabeth Black shows the influence of her poetry as well as her ability to develop character and plot. A+
15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
It is obvious to anyone reading Elizabeth Blacks first novel, THE DROWING HOUSE that this book was written by someone with a talent for composing a descriptive narrative that borders on poetic.
Ms. Black takes us on a journey with her protagonist Clare Porterfield as she returns to her family home on Galveston Island, a place filled with corrosive relationships and family secrets. Like the salty haze that permeates the island, slowly and silently undermining the paint and wood of the cities edifices while the winds and tides erode the beaches so too, do the hidden secrets and insular lives of the Carraday and Porterfield families eat away at their happiness and peace of mind. The title, THE DROWNING HOUSE, could easily be a metaphor for the destiny of the two families who are individually and collectively being overtaken and consumed by a flood of altered memories and carefully guarded secrets.
For Clare, her entire being is so focused on reconnecting with her childhood friend Patrick as well as with her photography that she is either unable or unwilling to see what is obvious to those around her. She clings to her camera as if it were a life preserver that provides some level of comfort and control. For years both she and Patrick have struggled to cope with and overcome the dark and tragic legacy of their two uncommonly unusual families.....a struggle that continues to this day.
For me DROWNING HOUSE is reminiscent of one of my favorite novels, Pat Conroy's PRINCE OF TIDES. Both books are about people who form attachments and connections based upon unhappy circumstances and loneliness. Both novels examine abuse, both mental and physical, both feature protagonists attempting to rediscover themselves as they deal with their broken pasts and both beg the question "can one observe without assimilating and see but lack vision"? The most obvious difference in the books is that in Conroy's tome the characters are a bit more developed and three dimensional while Ms. Black only seems to hit two of the three facets.
While Thomas Wolfe once opined, "You can't go home again", I certainly wouln't mind a visit to one of Ms. Blacks subsequent narratives. 3 ½ stars
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Elizabeth Black's THE DROWNING HOUSE is by far one of the best literary first novels I have read in a long time. Ms. Black elegant language lends a macabre beauty to a sordid subject.
Clare Porterfield accepts a commision to create a photoessay of the history Galvestion to escape from the grief of her daughter's death, a crumbling marriage, and to discover herself from the fragments of her childhood. Each character is drawn with a fine pen as they walk across the pages to enhance the plot, and blend into the tapestry of place. They are juxtaposed over a stark historical and landscape stage where truth is hidden behind illusion in raw view.
THE DROWING HOUSE is a novel that rates residence on your shelf to be reread at a later date.
Nash Black, author of SANDPRINTS OF DEATH.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The other reviewers have covered the plot, so I won't go too much into that. I'll just say that main character, Clare Porterfield, has had a very strange childhood. This book has such gorgeous descriptive writing, that it just drew me in. The author Elizabeth Black writes with such passionate feelings. The abuse and dysfunction that the main character Clare grew up with, you as the reader, can see in vivid detail as you read her thoughts and emotions. It touched me personally as I am also a child abuse survivor who was taught like Clare that everything was somehow normal.
Most of the prose is written from Clare Porterfield's point-of-view from her internal dialogue and thoughts set in the present day and also in her childhood. Clare has been taught that her childhood was normal and though she dreads going back to her childhood home, something keeps beckoning her there. Then, when she starts to uncover more facts about the supposed death of Stella Carraday and even more facts about the cursed Carraday family in general she feels as if she might not ever leave. In this story not everyone or everything is as appears on the outside, as is the same in real life. As in the mind of a child not everything Clare remembers is exact.
There were several lines in this book that I personally connected with and I underlined due to their beauty or meaning. There are many layers of complexity in this story and the ending is bittersweet and not quite like you'd expect- a bit like life.
I'm sure that this story will not be everyone's cup of tea, but, if you pick it up and relate to the story you won't be disappointed. It's not an edge of your seat murder mystery; it's more of a psychological mystery with character studies. Elizabeth Black's writing style reminds me a bit of Emily Arsenault's writing, in the way that you get to really know personally your main characters.
Overall, a solid 4.5 stars, I'd recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Once I got past my disappointment that this novel wasn't the ghost story I had originally assumed it to be, I rather enjoyed The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black.
Clare returns to her hometown--the island of Galveston, Texas--after years away. She is grieving the death of her child and the end of her marriage when a career opportunity opens up for her at "home". She is anxious to be reacquainted with her childhood best friend Patrick Carraday whom she hasn't seen since they were teenagers. Clare is soon involved in the mystery surrounding Stella Carraday who supposedly drowned in the Great Hurricane in 1900 and is mixed up in the tangled relationships between her family and their neighbors the Carradays.
The mystery surrounding Clare and the Carradays became obvious to me early in the novel though I was intrigued to see what direction it would go once the revelation was apparent to Clare. The story advances at a nice pace, though the ending seemed a bit rushed and abrupt.
I always find it interesting that perfectly capable adults often revert to children when they return to their hometowns and the inter-generational family relationships. Clare is no exception. Often, in this story she acts and makes choices of someone much younger than she really is. This makes Clare a believable character though I never really felt connected to her. The island of Galveston played an interesting role as the setting of the novel. The richly unique history of the island and the locals give a nice flavor to the tale.
Overall, it was a good first novel and a rather enjoyable read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Clare Porterfield, a professional photographer, returns to her childhood home in Galveston after the death of her only daughter. Clare is caught up in remorse. Did the famous picture she took of her daughter lead inexorably to her death? Clare is also caught up in remembrance of her own childhood. After she and her best friend, Patrick, started a fire in which a girl lost her life, she was sent to live with her Grandmother. Now she wonders if that was the only reason. Galveston seems to be filled with secrets about her family and earlier secrets about the Carraday family who own the big house across the alley.
The author has a captivating ability to bring you into the area she's describing. You can actually feel the heat, dampness and decay in Galveston. That's the best part of the book. I couldn't be sure whether the author was attempting to write a mystery or a family saga. In neither case, did she catch and keep my attention. The solution to the mystery is predictable in the first fifty pages.
As a family saga, it lacks the participation of most of the characters. Clare's mother is almost a ghost in the story. Patrick doesn't show up until very late in the book. Will Caraday, owner of the big house across the alley, is a presence, but we never get to know him. Everything is seen from the outside.
I loved the portrayal of Galveston, but if you're reading the book for the mystery, or insight into a dysfunctional family, the novel disappoints. I enjoyed the book, but wouldn't recommend it unless you're especially interested in a story set in Galveston.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2013
Many reviews on this book have been posted on Amazon.com, so I will just make several observations. No first novel is perfect because no novel is perfect, but a first novel sometimes may border on the sublime. This one joins my short list of those first novels that do: To Kill a Mockingbird, V., The Secret History, Death of a Nationalist, and a few others. I read it in two sittings -- about two-thirds of the way through I had to stretch my legs for a half hour, or I would have read it in one. It is a Southern Gothic novel that explores the great theme of Southern Gothic novels: the nature of evil; unlike many other Southern Gothic novels, it has something original to say about that theme. It also rises above many other contemporary Southern Gothic novels in that Ms. Black is a literary writer -- part of the attraction of this novel is its language, so a reader looking for a plot-driven, "twisty" entertainment should go elsewhere. Through her literary skill, however, Ms. Black does make melodramatic, bizarre events entirely believable -- the true test for a Southern Gothic. Yes, as some reviewers have pointed out, the reader figures out the "mystery" long before Claire does -- these readers should google "dramatic irony." Lastly, I will buy copies of this book to give to friends.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2013
Clare Porterfield has made a successful life for herself. As a photographer, she is invited back to her hometown of Galveston, Texas for an exhibition. Reeling from a family tragedy and unraveling marriage, she takes refuge in the offer to reconnect with the comfort of familiarity there.
In revisiting the past, Clare is able to reexamine her own past, as well as research her family history. She is seeking answers involving her family's connection to a longtime influential family, the Carradays.
Clare is intrigued by the unusual drowning of Stella Carraday, who drowned in the family home during the Great Hurricane of 1900. She had drowned hanging by her hair from the chandelier. The unusual circumstances have long been a mystery. Now Clare's curiosity grows, drawing her into a dark and unsettling past.
This dark mystery tells some of the history of Galveston, while telling the stories of two families. A fascinating and well developed suspense novel, it is one not to be missed.