Book review: Water by John Boyne

Friday, December 1, 2023 Permalink

Water by John Boyne is the first book I’ve read by the respected Irish novelist. And it’s going to be a difficult book to describe because much of made is special is the way its secrets unfold, which means I don’t want to share any here. It was also a deceptive read – slow, meandering between the present and past – but here’s an almost-addictive rhythm to Boyne’s writing and the way this book reveals itself.

Book review: Water by John BoyneWater
by John Boyne
Published by Doubleday UK, Bloomsbury Publishing
on 07/11/2023
Source: Bloomsbury ANZ
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 0857529811
Pages: 176

The first thing Vanessa Carvin does when she arrives on the island is change her name. To the locals, she is Willow Hale, a solitary outsider escaping Dublin to live a hermetic existence in a small cottage, not a notorious woman on the run from her past.

But scandals follow like hunting dogs. And she has some questions of her own to answer. If her ex-husband is really the monster everyone says he is, then how complicit was she in his crimes?

Escaping her old life might seem like a good idea but the choices she has made throughout her marriage have consequences. Here, on the island, Vanessa must reflect on what she did - and did not do. Only then can she discover whether she is worthy of finding peace at all.

The book opens as Vanessa arrives on a small Irish island and becomes Willow. It’s a world away from her old life in Dublin and we quickly learn that she escaped that life and notoriety as a result of her husband who’s now in prison. She adopts her middle name and former surname, hoping to remain anonymous despite small villages’ penchant for sniffing out strangers and their stories.

Vanessa’s days pass slowly initially but then she moves into a rhythm, as does this book. Boyne drip feeds we readers details of Vanessa’s past. Life with her parents, meeting her husband and becoming a mother. There’s a sense of reverie about the way she relays that time though it’s obvious she has regrets and hasn’t always been happy.

We learn more about her husband and their life and readers are privy to a hint early on about what fate eventually befell Vanessa and her family.

I loved the insight Boyne provides us into those on the island – so many fascinating untold stories. And Vanessa’s tentative story telling is reflected in the relationships she builds – with the local priest, a young farmer nearby, and a publican. As the book progresses we better understand Vanessa. Her melancholy, but also a sense that she is there doing penance of some sort. Though I was at times ambivalent about her… unsure if she’s seeking solace or redemption and trying to unravel where things went wrong; or if she’s just hiding.

Boyne does an excellent job of this book’s climax. We build to it slowly and Vanessa seems unkeen to confront her past and her role in what happened, but ultimately given no choice.

The end of the book is heart-wrenching. There’s grief and guilt, anger and regret all spinning about wildly, like the Irish weather.  Boyne touches on a number of sensitive topics here and does so with gentle nuance. I’m unsure if this book is based on any real life story but had it been set here in Australia I think we’d wonder if it was rooted in fact.

I underestimated the impact this book had on me. There’d been tears but I thought they’d all been shed until I turned the final page and saw that this is the first in a series and a character we meet here (one of the untold stories) will feature in the next. Then more tears fell.

Water by John Boyne was published in Australia by Penguin Random House.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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