Joseph Howse’s debut novel The Girl in the Water is a work of stoic yearning in the waning days of the Soviet Union.
Seen through the eyes of bookish Nadia as her late teens fade to nascent adulthood, the story follows her sister Nastya, an artist living the facade of a happy newlywed life amidst the fallout of Chernobyl, and their friends: Ida, a troubled-yet-resilient orphan who perseveres through the trials of psychiatric incarceration, and Johnny, a non-conformist swept up in the war effort in Afghanistan.
The bulk of the novel is set in Ukraine or Estonia during the decay of the USSR in the late ‘80s. But rather than expound on political history, Howse captures a lived experience. This is a character-driven work, prioritizing an interwoven series of slice-of-life vignettes over the clockwork comforts of tidy plotting, and it’s imbued with the authenticity and credibility of memoir.
Howse excels at drawing textured portraits of multi-faceted women. Ida delivers the best lines (regarding carving a lover’s initials in a tree: “It’s the most romantic way to show him I have a knife”), and the sisters’ grandmother is a cheerful, if haunted, war hero. The characters’ dialogue is colored with Slavic idioms and laced with a subtext of hopes deferred from generation to generation. The legacy of war casts a long shadow but pervading it all is a battered optimism.
The ending is slightly enigmatic and potentially polarizing. Arguably, some loose ends are left undone and some character arcs aren’t fully realized. Character intentions are also sometimes open to interpretation. For many readers, however, that very untidiness may represent exactly the artfully flawed beauty that underpins the novel’s aesthetic.
Regardless, The Girl in the Water is a major achievement in a debut novel: a story populated with unforgettable characters who occupy the reader’s mind long after the book is back on the shelf.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.