Review: This is the Water by Yannick Murphy

When was the last time you read an entire novel written in the second person? For me, it was never. Well, until I picked up This is the Water by Yannick Murphy it was never.

In a swimming pool somewhere in America, a group of children and teenagers swim competitively, while their parents watch and cheer them on. Among the youngsters is one who will soon be dead, murdered. And among the parents is Annie, supporting her two daughters, trying to save her marriage, and haunted by the suicide of her older brother.

This is the Water is billed as a story about a murder, but actually the murder takes up very little space in the book. It’s there to drive people together and apart, to manoeuvre the characters in and out of certain situations, to reveal hidden secrets. But This is the Water is not fully a mystery, or a crime novel, or a thriller (although it probably falls most into that last category if you really want to pigeonhole it). There is no secret about who the murderer is, or why they do what they do. The murder, in my reading, was a way to propel the characters forward (and it works).

This is the Water takes us into the thoughts and minds of a number of people, but it is Annie with whom Murphy decrees we must spend the most time. A “normal” mother, Annie takes us into the world of competitive swimming, much of which seems to revolve around people squeezing themselves into uncomfortable, oddly shaped swimming costumes – a metaphor if there ever was one. We also see Annie as friend, as wife, as lover and as unwitting confidant, as well as in the role of lost sister and damaged daughter. It’s a combination that forms a well-rounded, sympathetic and powerful character.

But just as This is the Water is not really a story about a murder, it’s also not really a story about Annie. Instead, I felt like it was a story exploring the psychology of people thrust into a scary situation, about right and wrong, and the fact that very few things fall into either category. Murphy presents a series of situations, many of which throw up moral questions, and many of the characters respond with moral ambiguity for different reasons – to save themselves, to save their families, out of spite. Murphy’s ending for This is the Water surprised me, but also felt right for the characters in the novel.

So to the first thing I talked about, the second person narrative. Does it work? I didn’t think it would, and I thought it would prevent me from getting into the book, but in fact it didn’t. I didn’t stop noticing it, but not in a bad way. Instead, I felt the second person narrative gave the book a real rhythm in my head – perhaps a bit like the rhythm of swimmers moving through water…

This is the Water is an intriguing study of character, and of form, and it’s those two things that should have you diving to read it.

This is the Water is released on July 31, 2014.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Headline. This did not affect my review.

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