Completely off the wall, a sliver of magic realism, a stunningly original voice, Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is the best work of fiction I have read so far this year.
Right from the beginning it hooked me and I couldn’t wait to get back to it every time I put it down, because I could not guess what the author was going to do next and somehow she made me very interested to want to know.
I’m still not quite sure how she managed that, but at a guess I would say it is a combination of an incredible imagination and a very close observance of reality. That might sound hypocritical, and that those two things should really negate each other, however she uses a sprinkle of magic realism firmly rooted in the mundane world, just as Eowyn Ivey did in The Snow Child, making the reader question whether they are reading fantasy or realistic fiction without alienating them in the process.
The protagonist Arthur Braxton can’t quite make out what is going on either and we are right there with him, going back for more to try and make the unexplained logical – and to find out more about that girl in the pool.
Arthur Braxton lives in a town in the North of England, so if you have never been there or known any young people from up that way, be warned about the vernacular and remember he is a teenager, so many of the things he says and does are appropriate to his age and the area he comes from. I don’t know whether that makes him authentic, but it makes his voice unique and his story compelling to read.
Arthur’s Mum left he and his father for another bloke and neither of them have heard from her since, although she continues to support them financially, so they’re not making a fuss, on the contrary they are keeping a very low profile. Arthur’s Dad isn’t taking it all very well, so Arthur is parenting himself and almost at his wit’s end when he is drawn towards the old abandoned swimming baths, fenced off and due for demolition. And what he finds there keeps drawing him back repeatedly. If you choose to read the book, you’ll also be intrigued to follow him and find out.
“And that’s why I’m now pushing a shopping trolley, with my dad in it, up the hill and away from the sea front in the twatting rain. Dad’s huffing and puffing, like he’s a fucked-up steam train, and I don’t know why ’cause it’s me breaking my back trying to get the fucker up the hill. The wind’s not helping, the rain’s not helping and mainly I’m wondering what the fuck I was thinking. I mean, like owt can cure my dad. I’ve told him I’m taking him to his doctor’s appointment, he has to have a review every couple of months to see if he’s still ill. Usually the doctor takes one look at him and then, no shit, Sherlock, says that Dad’s unfit for work. Dad never even has to speak, which mainly pisses me off, ’cause I can’t remember the last time I heard him talk. I miss his voice.”
I am happy to know there is a bit of a backlist, that Caroline Smailes has written other novels and though some deal with dark subjects, her writing has an allure and originality that I am keen to explore further.
At the end of the book, the author mentions that the inspiration for this novel started with a place – Victoria Baths in Manchester, opened in 1906 and a proud icon of that city and its people. The council decided to close it in 1993 and a campaign to prevent its closure ‘Friends of Victoria Baths’ became a charitable trust and managed to save and restore the building, a venue all the public can visit today, though it does not look like any swimming takes place there.
Looking at their website today, I discovered serendipitously that this weekend 13 – 15 September 2013 the pool is open and for the first time in many years, full of water to mark the 10th anniversary since the Victoria Baths won the BBC Restoration Project. Since then more than £5m has been spent restoring the front of the building, stained glass windows and the roof of the gala pool.
A well-known synchronised swimming group Aquabatix entertained the supportive crowd with a spectacular performance Arthur Braxton would have been proud of! Learn more at www.victoriabaths.org.uk
An Interesting Fact: The pools were divided up for first class males, second class males and females. Men in the first class pool had the pleasure of swimming in the water first before it would be drained into the other two pools.
Note: Thank you The Friday Project, an imprint of Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book.