Book review: The Drowning Pool – Syd Moore
(Avon) Paperback: £6.99; ebook: £4.49
Reviewed by Dave Collins
Taking the codes and conventions of classic ghost stories and positioning them within a contemporary setting, Syd Moore’s debut novel, The Drowning Pool, is literally a tale of two dimensions. Sarah Grey, a young widowed mother, appears to be receiving signs, visions and visitations from the spirit of a long dead, although still unsettled, 19th century sea witch, also named Sarah Grey. But is it stress, illness or something genuinely supernatural that’s behind the hauntings?
The novel’s threads of historical wrong doings and teaser glimpses of horrors-to-follow have the long shadows of H. P. Lovecraft cast across them, while the serial style chapter closers draw on Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker, with the veil of local myths and mysteries stirring memories of Thomas Hardy and The Withered Arm.
Bringing us into the present day, Sarah Gray and her network of female friends and family are a compact circle of extended sisterhood – almost an allusion to unwritten coven bonds for modern times – reclaiming the ‘Essex Girl’ image as an East Anglian archetype rather than a tangerine-tinted stereotype.
Taking its base, build and background from the area’s tradition of witchcraft, witch hunters and cunning men, keeps the fantasy rooted in reality but also brings a fresh perspective to the sexual politics of ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins’ 17th century hate crusades – particularly in Essex.
Like Hardy’s studies and sketches of ‘Wessex’, the book’s topographical map is also Syd Moore’s home town, Leigh on Sea, a Thames-side fishing village terraced between its neighbours, Hadleigh and Southend-on-Sea. If you are a Southender (or familiar with the area) you’ll click and connect with the micro-local references immediately. If not, you’ll want to visit and root around the town ticking off The Drowning Pool locations: Old Leigh, the Library Gardens, or St Peter’s Church, looking for sword marks on the Mary Ellis grave (yes, they really are there) and similar historical reminders of a hidden past.
One of the most accomplished debut novels I’ve read, The Drowning Pool’s now-wave narrative, historical story arcs and subtext of gender politics through the ages presents a fully formed, confidently voiced entrance into the world of fiction of any genre. With none of the style finding Bambi-steps and plot-wobbles that usually dilute the early works of established authors. It is a pitch-perfect read for a wild, wind-whipped, wintry evening. A black Jackanory, that at its ghostliest moments will trace a line of grave-cold fingernails down your spine, and one of the few books-at-bedtime that has genuinely given me a fidgety night’s sleep.
Tuesday 6th December 2011: Syd Moore will be in conversation with Dave Collins on the Radio Podrophenia programme on Chance Radio (www.chanceradio.com).
Listen live from 9pm or catch up with the programme after broadcast on iTunes.