Reviewed by Annabel
She needed to be close to the water.
Kirsten is viewing a flat, as yet only part-renovated, in the Wakewater Apartments development. It is situated down the Thames from the city, away from the part of the river where people are hemmed into high-rise new-builds to get their expensive views. Out here, the banks are edged with greenery.
Though her commute would be longer, here, the river was all hers. (p1)
Even though there’s a leak in the ceiling that still needs fixing, Kirsten already feels at home there, so that on moving in day, she wasn’t fazed by her car being the only one in the car-park, the river is still hypnotising her.
We now move back in time to 1871 and will alternate chapters between Kirsten in the present and Evelyn in the past. Evelyn is on her way to Wakewater House for a rest and a cure, sent there by her father against her will, supposedly worn out to nervous exhaustion by her ‘rescue work’, helping rehabilitate fallen women into service – servitude of a different kind. She is met by Dr Porter, who explains a little about their ‘hydropathy’ therapies.
Kirsten can spend hours looking out of the windows at the river. One night shortly after moving in, she thought she saw a woman at the water’s edge, but when she looked again, there was no-one there. The next night, she spies a different, older woman down by the river and she goes outside to talk to her.
‘You must be the young woman in apartment three,’ she said flatly.
‘Yes, I’ve just moved in.’
‘I saw the light in the window last night. I live above you.’ She moved towards her. ‘My name’s Manon.’ (p25)
Manon tells her that they’re the only ones there so far, and she takes Kirsten into the undeveloped wing of the house for a peek at the grand old hydrotherapy fountain which is still there.
So who was the woman Kirsten saw last night? You’ll surely have your suspicions by now as I did.
Kirsten and Manon dance around each other a little while they get to know each other better. Manon shows her pictures from her research – they’re Victorian wax models of naked women, many opened up to show their ‘velvety red insides’. Manon explains that they’re ‘Anatomical Venuses’, used by medical students.
‘There’s always been a fascination with depicting dead women,’ Manon continued, ‘whether for art of science. The nineteenth century especially was obsessed with paintings of dead prostitutes.’ …
‘Where did they get them, these…models?’
‘Right here, dead, in the river. Do you know how many women were jumping into the Thames each week? Shamed, fallen women? Women who were pregnant or too poor to support themselves? You could just wait for the river to deposit them on the banks, nice and chilled for either the artist or the surgeon. Both wanted to take a peek inside.’ (p40/1)
The creepy Gothic feel of this slim novel begins to really creep up, as in 1871, Evelyn is to begin her water cure, and remembers Milly, a young girl she ‘rescued’ and became close to. What really goes on down in the basement? Why is the fountain so intimidating yet relaxing at the same time?
In the present day, Wakewater House asserts itself into Kirsten’s life. Like the house in Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, it is ever present as a character in this novel. Like the sirens of old though, the river Thames calls all those who live by it – luring them to its banks, its seemingly benign nature hiding the more elemental forces within. Can you live with or by the river, and not end up in it?
At just 130 pages, there is a lot to consider in this novel, not least the Victorian males’ typical diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ for women suffering from mental health problems. Evelyn is strong, but even she can’t resist being labelled hysterical, despite clearly being the sanest person in Wakewater.
V.H. Leslie was a finalist in the 2014 ‘Shirley Jackson Award’ for another novelette, and I can see why. The increasing sense of dread as Evelyn gets deeper into Wakewater’s programme and practices is well-done, the suspense is definitely there!
What I loved most about this novel though was the power of the river, which runs through the novel from the first line to the last. Highly recommended.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
V.H. Leslie, Bodies of Water (Salt, 2016) ISBN: 9781784630713, paperback original, 130 pp..
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