If you baldly list the themes in this book: child abuse, rape, infanticide, infidelity, bullying, mental illness, despair, even the incessant rain – it would be easy to think that The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is a bleak novel, but it isn’t: Caroline Smailes shakes these themes through the kaleidoscope of a teenage mind and the structure of a modern day fairy tale, and the result is a wonderfully poignant and, at times beautiful book about the scintillating pain and emotion of growing up. It is a book that Angela Carter could easily have written.
It works for a number of reasons, and the most important is the language and style of Arthur Braxton’s narration (I say narrator, although he is the principal narrator, at times others take over the story telling, whilst other devices are also used to extremely good effect). Arthur is about sixteen, he is living with his clinically depressed father after his mother ran off with a man she met on Facebook, he is bullied by the awful Tommy Clarke (Clarke posts photos of Arthur’s penis on Facebook – imagine that at sixteen! Christ, I’m so glad that I was a teenager in the 1980’s, at least we only had to worry about our awful haircuts). Arthur is a typical suffering teenager, but Caroline’s incursion into the psyche of a modern teenage boy is so real, so skillful that I can only conclude that she must have been one in a previous life.
In his desperation Arthur happens upon The Oracle, an abandoned Victorian Swimming Pool, famed for its alleged magic waters. Inside he discovers a world of water nymphs and ghosts, and in particular the beautiful water nymph Delphina – who was conceived through rape and turned into a nymph after her teenage mother hung herself – see, I told you there was pain, but Arthur’s narrative is such a realistic depiction of the energy of a true teenage boy: naïve, but not stupid and so thirsty for love and knowledge and experience that the pain is transcended and the back stories, as Arthur experiences them, become compelling rather than bleak.
Delphina and Arthur’s relationship develops like a fairy tale, and like all the best fairy tales its genius lies in the mix of mystique and reality, taking place as it does in a world that is part magical and ethereal and part harsh and brutally real as the beautiful water nymph falls in love with the bullied and fragile teenage boy.
And, like all classic love stories there is yearning, and learning, laughter and betrayal, and like all love stories there is a great climax that I won’t spoil for you.
The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is a lovely and memorable book and I wholeheartedly commend it.