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Water by John Boyne



John Boyne makes a compelling departure from his bestselling novels with 'Water', the first in an ambitious quartet of elemental-themed novellas. Though the 172-page story lacks the linguistic innovation one might expect given its subject, Boyne's mastery of character and confrontation of complex social issues remain unparalleled.


We follow Vanessa Carvin, wife of a disgraced elite swimming coach imprisoned for sexually abusing young girls. In the traumatic aftermath, Vanessa changes her name to Willow and takes refuge in an isolated Irish island community. Though aiming to blend into the background, her mysterious presence and rumoured connection to the high-profile scandal soon attract attention.


Boyne excels at slowly revealing Willow's motivations through interactions with quirky locals like the no-nonsense Mrs. Duggan and Father Ifechi, newly arrived from Nigeria. While some characters feel two-dimensional, they artfully advance the plot. We learn of the rift between Willow and her surviving daughter Rebecca, who ignores her attempts to connect, deepening the central question of complicity. Did Willow's choice of an easy, privileged life blind her to the horrors under her own roof?


As with Claire Keegan’s ‘Small Things Like These’, the island provides the perfect backdrop for Willow’s profound self-reckoning. Never one to shy away from controversial or challenging subject matter, Boyne confronts controversies around sexual abuse and suicide with characteristic nuance, rejecting simplistic notions of innocence and guilt. Willow painfully interrogates her own role, grappling with issues of willful ignorance, denial, and societal privilege that allow systemic abuse to persist.


The novella’s tight pacing builds momentum effectively. Boyne’s skillful storytelling immerses us in Willow’s emotional journey toward acceptance without excessive brooding. Key moments include Willow’s liberating refusal to accept her predatory husband’s appeals and a surprise twist resolving a storyline involving local outcast Evan Keogh. The development of the narrative arc really is something to remark upon with Boyne’s skill and dexterity with the written word.


With its timely themes compellingly rendered, ‘Water’ makes a thought-provoking first chapter in Boyne's quartet. Focused worldbuilding and tighter secondary character development could have added more heft, but the novella ably balances darkness with trademark wit. Boyne remains a master storyteller, confronting human complexity with empathy and wisdom.


Reviewer: Chris Reed

Double Day

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