Book Review: The Drowning Girl

That was also the night the dreams began (86).

Caitlin R. Kiernan, paleontologist and author, has penned prose fiction and graphic novels that have garnered her awards and recognition in fields of literary, horror, and SF/fantasy. Her fans include Peter Straub, Kathe Koja, and Neil Gaiman. Of her nine novels (thus far), none have matched the wave generated by her beguiling, genre-defying 2012 masterpiece, the story of a schizophrenic woman investigating her own haunting.

Title: The Drowning Girl: A Memoir
Author: Caitlin R. Kiernan

First published in March 2012.
ISBN: 0451464168
ISBN-13: 978-0451464163

Available from,,, and as a kindle.


India Morgan Phelps, aka Imp, suffers from schizophrenia and a legacy of suicidal ancestors. She encounters a naked woman named Eva Canning roadside on (possibly) two different occasions and attempts to assist her. Is she one woman or two? Is she a mermaid, a wolf, or a ghost? And what connection does Canning have to a seemingly haunted painter? Or a religious cult that committed suicide by drowning? Imp’s investigation into her own haunting might reveal dark truths about Eva or about herself—if only Imp could trust her own memories.

High Point:

Imp’s fragmented, dreamlike reality results from her schizophrenia, but this doesn’t mean she isn’t actually haunted by an external force as well. Her attempts to piece together the events of the haunting reflect brilliantly on our more mundane struggles to understand our identities and organize the narratives of our lives.

Low Point:

The book’s self-reflexive meta-narration constitutes one of the novel’s strengths—but some readers will find it turns in on and comment about itself a few two many times. Those who eschew the literary allusion-heavy will likewise find this book difficult to absorb.

The Scores:

She narrows her eyes, as though the faint red light from the car is too bright for her. I guess it would have been, after all that darkness. Her pupils would have suddently contracted, and her eyes are blue, a shade of blue that Rosemary Anne used to call “bottle-blue.” (If this were November, and not July, I’d see that her eyes are an unusual shade of brown, a brown that almost seems golden.) Regardless, she narrows her eyes, and they flash iridescent eyeshine, and she blinks at me. I think feral, which is much more appropriate and far less presumptuous than unearthly. She smiles very, very slightly, so slightly, in fact, that I may be mistaken. She might not be smiling. (77-78)

Originality: 5/6 The book echoes a number of earlier works, and frequently alludes to the works of numerous other authors, including Lewis Carroll, H.P. Lovecraft, Herman Melville, Charles Perrault, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickenson. Its haunted psychology brings to mind Shirley Jackson, while other elements recall Sandman. The Drowning Girl references historical events as diverse as the Murder of the Black Dahlia and the Inquiry into the New England Sea Serpent. It also contains tales within tales, ghost story tropes, and references to other art forms. And yet for all the tapestry of the familiar, The Drowning Girl reads like nothing else.

Imagery: 6/6

Story: 5/6 Imp struggles to assemble her life, her “dreadful jumble of pick-up sticks”(229), into a coherent story, and the reader faces the challenges of a narrator so unreliable she doesn’t believe herself.

Characterization: 5/6 Kiernan depicts Imp with a psychological depth next to which most characterization seems childish. The secondary characters are entirely credible though, of necessity, not always fully developed.

Emotional Response: 6/6

Editing: 5/6 The contorted style can present some problems, but Kiernan’s imagery beguiles.

Overall score: 6/6 Kiernan has crafted a layered, haunting story about the manner in which we construct ourselves and our reality, and we can “never be sure what happened” (318).

In total, The Drowning Girl receives 38/42