Thursday, 22 September 2016

UNDER WATER by Marisa Reichardt, reviewed by Pauline Francis

I chose this debut novel because of this sentence on the front cover: “Sometimes the safest place to be is underwater.” I was intrigued because I really don't like water at all. The hard cover on the right is even more disturbing to me, so I've shown you both.

Morgan is seventeen, lives in California and used to be a great swimmer, until a terrible event at school made her afraid to leave her apartment.

Sadly, we’ve become used to reading about school massacres, even used to reading about yet another loner who has taken revenge on his rejecting world. Reinhardt takes us in into new territory: what happens to the survivors? How do they recover from their trauma? Life can never be the same again, so how does a young person grow into a new one? Morgan is such a survivor. We know this early on. The tension lies in not knowing exactly what happened to her.

This novel skilfully and slowly takes us into Morgan’s mind as it is written in a very sparing present tense and first person, like a mental diary. Just when the reader is beginning to get the measure of her and her progress, thanks to her therapist, Brenda, a new thread of the trauma floats to the surface. The reader is constantly asking, ‘Is she going to get over this?’

Morgan begins her recovery when a new boy moves in next door. But this isn’t a love-cures-all novel. It’s much more subtle than that. The boy, Evan, connects Morgan to the world outside that she misses and wants to return to. And Reinhardt takes pains to point out that Morgan has to do the hard work every day, reading the mantra stuck onto the kitchen wall:  
1. Breathe 2. You’re are OK. 3. You’re not dying.

Nobody can get better for her.
“’Are you proud of yourself? Brenda asks.
I guess.’
I want you to own it, Morgan.’
I very much liked the introduction of Morgan’s car, a classic (1957) matador-red Bel Air, left to her by her grandfather. It’s a strong character and adds a dark twist to the day of the massacre, to Morgan’s final revelation.

I did find Morgan’s family situation depressing: her father suffers from war-related mental health problems; some might say it is unnecessary, as are Evan’s own family issues. But as forgiveness and acceptance are at the heart of this novel, Morgan has to forgive her father as well as the loner who carries out the massacre.

This is an honest and gutsy novel that I would recommend far and wide – to anybody suffering the trauma of physical and mental abuse - and to their teachers, parents, carers and counsellors.

Pauline Francis


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