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The Girl in the Water by Joseph Howse


Joseph Howse is a Canadian. Upon reading The Girl in the Water the first consideration is why a Canadian is writing about the Afghanistan war, and focusing on the last days of the Soviet Union. And so, with these concerns and the legacy that many Westerners have towards this Soviet bloc era, there is an immense feeling of connectivity between all the contributing elements.


As with any good historical fiction, the connections are often much more overt than one gives credit for. Howse is an expert on the Afghanistan war - an era richly steeped in history for Canadians due to their involvement - and it is clearly brought to the fore in the characterisation not only of the people in the novel, but that claustrophobic feeling that the prose is able to create.


The world of Ukraine and Estonia is one of pure oppression, and the characters reflect this notion. Constantly under some kind of regime, the protagonist Nadia finds herself removing as much of herself as she can through constantly reading and using escapism as a means of solace. Earlier in the novel, she witnesses a significant event on the beach of a friend and the trauma of the incident sticks with her throughout, adding to that overarching sense of the depressed society.


There are absolutely bright sequences throughout the piece. The doom of the narrative, while palpable, still focuses on people. And people are resilient. They fight on despite the odds - and that is the message of Howse. He is able to tap into that humanistic spirit, that psyche, and pull out the connections that mean the most in times of trouble.


Howse’s prose is wonderfully written. Through the narrative he is able to create realism in the descriptions and authentic moments between people. The novel is split into four sections which run their own narrative arc, but all four of which contribute to the overall meaning. Centering on the dialogue, Howse uses language well and is able to present the vocabulary of each of the characters with a sense of authenticity.


It’s easy to recognise Tolstoy’s influence in the writing. The drawing together of modern and traditional; people and spirit; and the overarching presence of oppressive forces really lends itself to the Russian masters. As a debut novel, there isn’t much higher praise than being compared to one of the Russian literati.


Overall, this is a novel that holds up incredibly well. It demonstrates more than just the vivid description of a time in our world’s history where oppressed people overcame incredible obstacles. It also celebrates life, and all that is to be gained through the experiences of togetherness and connection.


Reviewer: Chris Reed

The Copy Press

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