Elizabeth Black makes a notable debut with “The Drowning House,” a multigenerational, thrillingly evocative and witty novel that spans the decades between the devastating 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane and the island circa 1990.
Clare, a photographer, returns to Galveston ostensibly to direct an art exhibition. In truth, she is desperate to get away from reminders of her child’s death and subsequently tortured marriage.
Two mysteries drive the story and interrupt Clare’s exhibit research, which has a distinctly minor role in the narrative. One is from 1900, when a young woman allegedly drowned in the historic Carraday house next door, caught by her long hair on a chandelier as the water rose and trapped her. The other is an incident from Clare’s teenage years that also involved a death, and her and her boyfriend’s hasty exile from the island.
Black excels at summoning the unique culture of Galveston, its tragic past and scruffy present, a town that easily could have been as important a shipping center as Houston or New Orleans till Mother Nature literally sank any hope of greatness. The author absorbingly draws out the isolationist, melancholy nature the island’s inhabitants have cultivated over the past 100 years, suspicious of strangers but utterly dependent on the tourists who flock to Dickens on the Strand and other manufactured merriment.
Black’s only major misstep is in trying to stuff too much into one book, and in doing so, leaving a lot of strings either tangled or untied too late.
The relationship between Clare and her teenage boyfriend is often mentioned, teasing toward a significant reunion. Yet we don’t get to meet him till nearly the end of the book, and it’s a vexing letdown. The riddle of the drowned girl also builds to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Yet maybe that’s part of the point. In Galveston, things never turn out quite as one might expect or want, and enigmas tend to stay just that. The Spanish, after all, called it Malhado – “island of misfortune.”