Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

Reviewed by Anne Goodwin

Twenty-one-year-old Hiram Carver, assistant surgeon on the USS Orbis in 1833, senses something special about William Borden when he first sees him on board. The sailor exudes a quiet dignity that his upper-class superior officers seem to lack. So when he hears the story of Borden’s heroism in saving the lives of four men cast adrift for two months in an open boat following a mutiny, his admiration grows.

Yet there’s a savagery underneath Borden’s placid surface, which suddenly erupts in his tearing an officer’s throat with his teeth. Disturbing as this is, it’s perhaps less unsettling to the crew, and to this reader, than the events that preceded it when Carver is required to participate in a flogging by throwing salt water on the victim’s back between each lash.

Borden’s reputation, along with Carver’s insistence that he’s ill, enables him to avoid a similar punishment, or worse, although he is locked up for the remainder of the voyage. Ordered to care for him, Carver is glad of release from the madness of the naval routines although, spending his days in the dark with no-one but his patient, he soon becomes sick himself.

Returning home to his parents and sister in Boston, Carver’s sense of alienation continues until his father, a doctor with powerful connections, secures him a position at the nearby asylum. The regime, based on a paternalistic kindness reminiscent of moral treatment pioneered by William Tuke at York (England), seems healthier than that on board ship, although discipline and hierarchy is still maintained:

We create a wholesome environment. We encourage order and regularity in whatever our patients undertake. We are kind and respectful. Where practicable, we avoid coercion and unnecessary physical restraint. We provide a judicious moral management of the problem. And we do not – we absolutely do not – engage with our residents’ disordered mental processes.

But Carver has his own ideas including, predating Freud, delving into the dark waters of what we must take for the unconscious, to uncover the traumatic memories he believes the patient has repressed. When William Borden is admitted to the institution, Dr Carver can’t resist dabbling, inspired by a mixture of curiosity, arrogance and empathy, and a desire to please Miss Macy, Borden’s fiancée, the Quaker heiress from Nantucket who is paying for his care.

Like many drawn to the helping professions, Hiram Carver has dark waters of his own. Maternal neglect has left a hollowness at the core of his personality, to which he responds in some years by overindulging, in others by substantially curtailing his calorific intake. This causes him both to empathise with Borden’s starvation on the lifeboat – and with his horror when, prior to his outburst of bestiality on the Orbis, the men are informed their rations are to be drastically reduced – and fail to follow the story to its logical conclusion.

He’s also in denial about his sexual appetite and, although the reader notices that his attraction to Ruth Macy is little different to his attraction to her fiancé, about his jealousy of other couplings which shut him out. While his narration manages to evoke our sympathy, despite his failings, for the most part, Carver’s jealousy leads him to treat his sister in a manner that’s hard to forgive.

Despite his blinkeredness in some respects, Carver’s musings on madness are enlightened both for his time and ours. He’s open to acknowledging the arbitrary distinction between sanity and insanity (such as when a religiously deluded patient observes that an attendant treats the floor she cleans obsessively as her God) and the fear of chaos common to both:

I began to suspect that what we called madness was just this – terror, a very proper holy terror at the soiled and intractable nature of the world.

In conversation with Miss Macy, he shows insight into his own terror:

I sense terror in the everyday. And I don’t believe that we’ve solved the problem of how to live, that we’ve made that terror safe, merely by going along with the old ways and the old forms. We should be free to question, should be free to reinvent, should be free to feel that terror, the terrible freedom of being uncertain – but we aren’t; we cling to our false certainty and call it freedom, and we can’t see that what we’ve really created out of freedom is a prison.

Incarceration, along with hunger, and the location of madness, is this complex and multi-layered novel’s third theme. It begins with the ship and, of course, is most evident in the asylum, but class, gender, marriage, love and labels (such as hero or doctor) also serve to constrain. Carver struggles against the rule that bars visitors from the asylum but, in this as with the other prisons, it’s never quite clear for whose protection this is meant. On the domestic front, he childishly denies his sister the use of their deceased father’s study as a retreat for pregnant women – a more positive interpretation of confinement he is unable to tolerate.

Elizabeth Lowry’s ambitious second novel dives into the dark waters of human psychology, and the social structures we build to attempt to contain it, to net pearls of both wisdom and language. Although deep, it wears its erudition lightly, with plenty of story to keep us turning the page.

Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. Her former identity as a clinical psychologist, including several years in a longstay psychiatric hospital, continues to haunt her reading and writing. Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com

Elizabeth Lowry, Dark Water (Riverrun, 2018). 978-1786485625, 480p., hardback.

BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link).

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