The Drowning of Arthur Braxton
Caroline Smailes (The Friday Project 2013, Hardcover) 367 pages
There is a wonderful piece of dialogue about three-quarters of the way through this fanciful, yet touchingly realistic novel. The water nymph Delphina, in attempting to understand human love says the following:
When you fall in love with someone, I reckon it's like they become your unicorn...And when they're your unicorn, you believe in them, in their beauty. You believe in them being the most precious, the most fragile person ever created.
Well yes, exactly. When any of us falls in love all those possibilities that were felt so impossible for you and me; dreams for us, reality for other people who are not us, suddenly they are real. The mythic is real at last and all one ever wants to do for the rest of one's life is protect that person from anything. After all, if you woke up one morning to find a unicorn munching away at the daffodils and moon drops in your garden, wouldn't you want to protect it? Surely you would never want to call in the media or negotiate a sale to the London Zoo, or would you? If you would, I regret to say your imagination was burnt to a crisp long ago and this book is not for you. If you still believe in love and allow its mists to cloud your mind in pleasant colours, then oh, I think you will quite love The Drowning of Arthur Braxton.
The story takes place almost entirely within The Oracle, a decaying bathhouse built somewhere in the late Victorian or Edwardian era in North Wales. In the modern day, it is now run by three water healers who deliver individual psychic healing to the emotionally distressed. Well at least that's their story and they're sticking to it. As I have already referred to a water nymph, you may well assume there is more to it than that and for once in your life, your assumption is correct. Well done!
The magic of Caroline Smailes' story is the interweave of the bleak reality of the virtually abandoned adolescents Laurel, who comes to work at The Oracle and Arthur Braxton who stumbles into the bathhouse some years later, after the water healers have closed up shop and the building is to be sold to the obligatory soulless American investors who intend to turn it into one of those cheerily lit yet ultimately dreary expensive spas for people who can't turn down that extra fat slice of cheesecake but at least want to pretend they're doing something about it. Laurel is sent out to work at age 14 so her mother can collect the money and maintain her non-career of shagging every man in sight. Arthur seeks to scape the school bullies and also his home, where his father sits silent and drunk ever since his wife left him for an old flame she met on Facebook. Both Laurel and Arthur escape to the waters of The Oracle.
Smailes has an incredible imagination, both in plot and structure. While one has to admit to guessing where all this was leading fairly early on, that sort of 'beating the detective to the solution' did not harm the enjoyment in the least. Narrative voices take their turn, amongst the two adolescents, Delphinia and others. Most delightfully, some of the short chapters are in verse, while others are presented in play form, complete with stage directions. That was really rather a fun thing to do and breaks up any possible monotony.
The other clever device is that the various sections are introduced with short, mock news pieces discussing a torrential rain and flooding that is drowning the UK for the three weeks of the novel's main action. It is a clever wink to the reader. Some see water as a disaster; yet looked at another way, as in the magical waters of The Oracle, it can be a way to freedom. And so it is – The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is a sweet and sly read for those who believe in ways to freedom.
Be seeing you.