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Fiction in Brief

UP THROUGH THE WATER, by Darcey Steinke , (Doubleday: $16.95; 162 pp.)

June 04, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

The sensuous lure of summer--from primal, enveloping ocean water to the warm touch of the sun--is vividly evoked in this first novel, set on an island off the North Carolina coast where the 25-year-old author used to vacation with her family. Emily, Darcey Steinke's protagonist, embodies summer's indulgent spirit; most often swimming or relaxing on a yacht, she appears in one typical scene with her hand "cupped around a wineglass, the other resting on her thigh, and her back against the metal of the chair. She settled into herself and lifted her glass for more."

Emily's beau is initially John Berry, a ferry operator whom she sees as part of her sensuous summer world, as "a wave moving toward the bed." When Berry begins talking of Earthly matters such as marriage, though, she drops him for a younger man, the Hippie-ish "Birdflower," whom she eventually spurns as well. One might think that Steinke is setting Emily up for disappointment, but she never seriously confronts Emily with the consequences of her indecision. Both in the book and on the jacket cover, Emily is portrayed as a free-spirited Independent Woman; in fact she is evasive (as isolated in water from adult realities as a baby in a womb) and manipulative (she says she loves Berry "not because it was true, but because she knew it would give her a foothold in whatever came next"). Steinke might have passed judgment on Emily through her 16-year-old son Eddie, but he never resolves his feelings about her life-style, vociferously defending her against her ex-lovers at one point ("She's better than all of you!"), but seeming uncertain moments later: "Eddie was leaning against the cottage, sliding down like a water drop on glass, his arms wrapped around himself."

In general, Steinke raises many provocative issues, but leaves most undeveloped, from the erotic tension suggested between Emily and Eddie (Eddie speaks to Emily in a voice "as clear and deep in the dark as a lover's," while Emily is jealous of Eddie's girlfriend) to the trauma experienced by Eddie and his girlfriend when they are forced to drown a dying horse in the ocean (this grim coming-of-age, never mentioned again, doesn't change their character in any apparent way). "Up Through the Water" also has some stylistic problems, such as a frequently changing point of view: The story's protagonist is supposedly Eddie, but Steinke, clearly more comfortable with probing women's thoughts, shifts to a female point of view whenever possible.

Steinke is often compelling when exploring women's thoughts, creating passages credible enough to compensate for the blurry relationships between her characters. Reflecting on her childhood, for instance, Emily remembers how she walked to a rabbit cage one day and saw "the mother rabbit slouching over, showing her nipples, a baby rabbit attached to each one. Off to the side, there had been a dead one covered with a dozen flies. . . . And she'd stood there at six or seven, her hands climbing into her shirt for her own nipples. This is me , she thought, and turned her head up to the sky."

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