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The Weight of Water

DROWNING RUTH A Novel By Christina Schwarz; Doubleday: 338 pp., $23.95

September 17, 2000|MARK ROZZO | Mark Rozzo writes the First Fiction column for Book Review

At times, reading "Drowning Ruth," Christina Schwarz's unsettling debut novel about family secrets, thwarted desires and the persistence of even the dimmest memories, is like taking a cool, mesmerizing swim across a deep black lake: Each stroke stirs up mysterious ripples on the changing surface, twirling eddies form and disappear, the silty bottom cannot be glimpsed, and the task of paddling to the far shore becomes an engrossing exercise.

Not that "Drowning Ruth"--which unfolds around a lake in Wisconsin and is told in three voices--requires a high degree of readerly athleticism. Rather, its abundant mysteries have a way of welling up and enveloping the imagination, its insistence on withholding essential information creates a seductive feeling of not being on solid ground and its twists of fate leave the impression that we're all bobbing on undulating circumstances that refuse to conform to our expectations.

For spinster Amanda Starkey, expectations are better left to others. In the spring of 1919, she returns home to Lake Nagawaukee to live with her younger sister Mathilda and Mathilda's 3-year-old daughter Ruth after working in a hospital in Milwaukee, where she aided soldiers returning from the Great War. (Mathilda's husband, a meat packer named Carl, remains at the front.) As Amanda, Schwarz's main and not always forthcoming narrator, puts it: "I loved being an angel. But I had to give it up." The reason, as is so often the case in "Drowning Ruth," isn't clear. At first, it seems that Amanda has been asked to leave the hospital after a breakdown; eventually, Schwarz allows us to realize that Amanda is, in fact, carrying the child of Clement Owens, a back-slapping philandering businessman who seduces the naive Amanda with steaks, champagne and fancy Chicago hotel rooms before confessing that he's married. For now, however, Schwarz wants us to focus on another trauma, one that becomes the book's center that cannot hold: In November 1919, Mathilda mysteriously drowns in the lake's icy waters, and Amanda, surrendering any chance of having a life of her own, is determined to raise Ruth.

Ruth is Schwarz's second narrator, an odd girl who grows up obsessed with marbles and plagued by recurring visions of drowning: "I remembered the water, a sky on the ground, where you fall and fall and fall and fall. We were at heaven and I was afraid, because that's where you go when you die." Though Amanda repeatedly assures Ruth that she certainly never drowned--how could she still be alive if she did?--Ruth gradually warms to Amanda's version of maternal love. But Ruth's childhood is no picnic: She must learn to adjust to the return of her father from the war and, after Amanda is removed to a mental institution, suffer through the loveless regime of Carl's cousin Hilda, who rules the house like a commandant.

Amanda returns, and Amanda, Carl and Ruth (triangulations abound in this book) set about becoming an almost normal family. Even so, the shadowy circumstances of Mathilda's death--which Schwarz gradually reveals with the aid of a third-person narrator and which would be unfair to divulge here--continue to haunt the household. In the absence of solid information, Carl, who discovers a pen knife bearing the monogram of Clement Owens--Amanda's paramour--in the house, suspects that Mathilda had an affair with a "shirker" during the war and died giving birth to their love child. Of course, the only love child is Amanda's, whom Ruth dimly recalls as the "ice baby" and whose whereabouts remain unclear. Only when Ruth enters awkward adolescence in the second half of "Drowning Ruth" and befriends a popular, socially ambitious girl named Imogene do we get an inkling of what has become of Amanda's lost baby.

Schwarz fills nearly every page of this book with cruel ironies, but one that stubbornly resists resolution is the fact that Amanda--Schwarz's strange, unreadable heroine--chooses to raise Ruth while abandoning her own child without much fuss. Yet Schwarz pushes beyond murky psychologies and enters the realm of cosmic awfulness when it looks like Imogene and Arthur Owens--Clement's teenage son--are on a collision course of love and, unbeknownst to them, incest.

Like the lake itself, Amanda is a cipher at the center of the various lives that inhabit "Drowning Ruth." In her, Schwarz has created an enigma who mirrors the desires and aspirations of her family and neighbors and who, occasionally, swallows them whole. Ruth, for instance, is saved from actual drowning but ends up foundering in Amanda's strange thrall, a wishy-washy realm in which will and passivity combine to create a deadly undertow.

Schwarz, as a first-time novelist, has already proved her uncanny ability to plumb the wide gulfs that exist between emotions that have hard and fast names and to tease the reader to plunge on in search of buried treasures, even if such withholdings occasionally seem coy. But with its abundant states of neither-nor, "Drowning Ruth" is a strangely compelling tribute to the power of nuance, one somehow anchored by a character--Amanda--who is neither solid nor ether: She's victim and perpetrator, concerned worrywart and cold fish, brave stoic and cowardly shrew, a lifesaver and, just possibly, a murderess.

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