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This debut novel is bound to evoke references to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Like that unavoidable school text, it speaks in the voice of a young Southern girl, it is anchored in a specific Southern landscape, the accents of its characters are identifiably regional, and it is nestled snugly in the traditions of Southern Gothic literature. But don't worry. THE FLOATING GIRLS is not an imitation - it is a great deal more interesting than that.
Like its ancestor, the story is told by an older version of a child observer. Here the eye is that of Kay Whitaker, twelve years old, and with a mouth on her, unlike the rest of her family, who are largely uncommunicative. For her part, Kay makes up for their closed mouths - she never shuts up. And the language she uses is far from lady-like. She admits "I had a thing for cursing. It's like I was born with curse words in my mouth, just dying to come out with my first breath of life." She admits it, but she never apologizes. Her family consists of a father, who has work boots but no work, a mother who is rarely awake, two brothers and a sister, all older than Kay, and Elizabeth, born and died when Kay was two and now lies buried under a tree in the yard. They live in a ramshackle house in Bledsoe, in the Georgia coastal marshes south of Savannah, back off the road and surrounded by water. In the summer, none of the kids wear shoes. When exactly the events take place is not specified, though references to certain technologies place it in the early years of this century. But the period evoked by images of the children wandering about barefoot in homemade clothing and living pretty much on potatoes seems more like the Great Depression than the 21st century.
When Kay meets a new neighbour, Andy, who lives even further back in the swamp in a "high heel" house precariously supported on poles and lacking the amenities (electricity, bathrooms, shower) even the Whitakers enjoy, she is immediately entranced. Andy, who is the same age as Kay, was in fact born in Bledsoe, but he and his father left for California after his mother drowned, perhaps a suicide. To Kay, Andy is an exotic - he's been living in "the other side of America," and now that he's back, he no longer has to go to school. Why not? He just doesn't, and as we find out, official Bledsoe is not overly interested in the lives of its disadvantaged children.
Kay's fair-haired sister Sarah-Anne doesn't go to school, either, though she's not quite fourteen, but that, it turns out, is because she's been excluded for problematic behaviour that is not fully described but that seems to have involved inquisitive touching of some of the other girls at school. Sarah-Anne is clearly disturbed, though she is closer to her mother than are any of the other children. According to Kay, she spends most of her time "standin' in the yard like a twig in mud." When occasionally the social worker comes around to check up on her, the parents hide her in the shed. And when she abruptly disappears, never to be seen alive again, no one, not even her family, tries very hard to find her.
Sarah-Anne's disappearance is not the only mystery however. Although it occurred ten years in the past, the circumstances surrounding Andy's mother's death come into question with a result that has serious consequences for the family. Finally, as well, it turns out that Sarah-Anne's disappearance is not the only mystery about her.
These plot turns are what permit the novel to be classified as mystery fiction. Unfortunately, readers who pick the book up expecting it to conform to certain expectations of the crime fiction genre are likely to be disappointed. There are mysteries, certainly, but they are almost peripheral to the central concerns of the book and it is questionable whether they are ever fully resolved. This is not, however, a criticism of the novel itself, merely of how it's been tagged. THE FLOATING GIRLS is a remarkable debut, regardless of how it's classified. The language is the charm, especially in the difference between how the grownup Kay expresses herself while still allowing her twelve-year old self the liberty of her blunter, less nuanced, but heartfelt expression. A sympathetic reader will be cheering young Kay on, hoping that she can navigate her way through the muddy waters of her childhood and relieved to hear in the more modulated language of the adult Kay that she has survived intact.
Unless you are a reader who will find the absence of any real detection or firm explanation a deal-breaker, THE FLOATING GIRLS is exceptionally engaging, even if in fact only one of them really floats - the other has her feet planted firmly on the soggy ground.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2022
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