Drowning Instinct (by Ilsa J. Bick)

5 07 2012

Ilsa J. Bick’s Drowning Instinct is the second Printz contender the cat has read in as many weeks. Drowning Instinct, though, is a whole different ballgame than Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities. However, the voice of its protagonist/narrator is as powerful as the reach of Bacigalupi’s (geo)political ambitions (BTW, ‘drowning’ seems to be a keyword these days). Drowning Instinct is contemporary YA at its best. It’s set very much in the tradition set by a someone like Laurie Halse Anderson, introducing us to stories that are thoroughly character-driven, and delving into the deepest human emotions possible, wherever that may take you.

The book starts when Jenna Lord, 16, is dragged out of the water and Detective Pendleton (‘Bob’) gives her a tape recorder so she can give him her story… the truth, the truth, and nothing but the truth. Of course, that truth is an ugly one. At 16 Jenna is already deeply scarred, figuratively as well as literally. She’s just returned from an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital, courtesy of her cutting, a fire and a dysfunctional family life or all of that combined. She now has to attend Turing, because her emotionally demanding father (aka PsychoDad), insists this will be the best way to adjust to normal life again. This is where she meets Mr Anderson, who she claims is the way her story of the truth should start.

There are a couple of things that make of Drowning Instinct a captivating and thoroughly twisted read. First of all,  there’s the device of the unreliable narrator, used here in the best way possible. Jenna insists that in the complicated relationship between her (a student) and Mr Anderson (a teacher), she was not a victim…which is of course the first thing that pervy Bobby-o (Jenna’s words) would think of. And indeed to a certain extent (and up until the big reveal, which I’m not going to reveal!) we see that both characters are thoroughly messed up, and both need each other to fix them back to normal. On the other hand, there are a couple of things our unreliable narrator Jenna omits. For one, I don’t really recall Jenna actually mentioning Mr Anderson’s age… which of course, shouldn’t matter when we’re dealing with a student-teacher relationship, but my point is, Mr Anderson could be 24 (Jenna says he attended Stanford), he could be 30 or he could be 40. When someone of about 24 is in a relationship with someone who’s 36, no one thinks twice about this. But when one of the two is a minor – even ‘already’ 16 – and the other is an adult – even ‘only’ 24 – then things get complicated of course. I’m not saying that one is right and the other is wrong, but it’s the same sort of dynamic that plays all through the novel. The same is true when the relationship gets physical. Narrator Jenna careful skirts over that, because she feels it’s none of ‘Bob’s’ business. Who’s predator, who’s prey? Does Jenna find out, will the reader find out? It’s just such a thrill to see what (if anything) will be revealed by the (un)reliable narrator.

Also, the characters – and it’s not just the protagonists Jenna and Mr Anderson – in Drowning Instinct are of the type the cat loves best: they are complex, they’re messed up, there is never only a right or only a wrong, there are so many shades of gray here that it’s almost an expressionist landscape of pain, cuts, emotions added onto the canvas layer upon layer. Of course, Jenna only tells us what she wants to tell us about the other characters, but I liked the way Matt (Jenna’s brother who’s deployed in Afghanistan) and Danielle’s characters were used in the book, showing us that there are more broken people that just Jenna and Mr Anderson.

Lastly, there’s Ilsa J. Bick’s use of setting and space. The Wisconsin woods in which Jenna starts to run again is used so effectively that it’s almost a metaphor for the density of emotions that Jenna ànd Mr Anderson are dealing with. This is something which I also noticed in Ashes, where the woods are also almost a character of their own. Again, the mood of much of the book is enhanced by the setting, and this setting definitely has some filmic overtones. This really is how an author should use space to really show and to add meaning to the words on a page.

The cat loved Drowning Instinct, but she doesn’t think it will win the Printz. Is it good (“literary”) enough to win it? Probably (narrative voice, setting and pacing are stellar), but I don’t really know whether the Printz Committee would go for this particular topic right at this moment in time. I do think it’s Printz Honors material for sure.  Readers who liked Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy will find an equally as uncomfortable read in Drowning Instinct. There’s something about broken and flawed characters that make them so irresistible to read about, maybe because they make us feel less flawed, or maybe because we recognize ourselves in part of who they are. Either way, contemporary YA at its best, peeps. Read Drowning Instinct!



2 responses

18 09 2012
Lock and Key (by Sarah Dessen) « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] Girl B got Ilsa Bick’s Drowning Instinct. […]

22 12 2012
The 12 of 2012! « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] Drowning Instinct (Ilsa J. Bick)* […]

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