Nothing really happens. Here, the “main event is simply a view of the water”. So Ruby’s story should not be a page-turner. But, in fact, The Town that Drowned is a coming-of-age story with a curious momentum.
No single element is responsible: character and voice, setting and structure, all work in concert in this debut, engaging readers determinedly, exhaustively.
Ruby is charming: matter-of-fact, intelligent and intuitive. “Sure I was familiar with circling the perimeter of outcast territory, being forever linked to him, but it’s completely different now that I’ve been catapulted over the fence. Weird is a disease and once you have it you have it. I’m fourteen years old and infected for good. There’s no miracle cure. There’s no general prescription. I am quarantined all alone on the Island of the Odd. It’s a chronic condition. A lifelong affliction.”
Her relationship with her brother, Percy, is at the heart of the novel, because Percy represents a force which embodies routine and ritual. “Percyville. Population: 1.”
Ruby jokes, but she’s not always able to find the humour in Percy’s quirks and foibles. “I always seemed to be around to witness this, and although I used to be sure that his heart was at least cracking, if not breaking, now I only think, Great-not-this-again. After a while you feel like you’re living with the boy who cried wolf. After a while the urge to rush over and hug him fades away completely.”
Given that Percy can suffer a breakdown if the telephone rings at the wrong time of day, it seems certain that the news that the town is going to be flooded and residents relocated will devastate his sense of security. The government has announced plans to build a dam at Mactaquac, which will result in the flooding of the Saint John River and the drowing of the town of Haverton.
But it’s mysterious, really: the ways in which we do (and do not) adapt to change. “Unexpected problems bring unexpected results.”
Part of what makes The Town that Drowned such a powerful story is that it is infused with change, large and small. The layers conspire to create a sense of weight, even while the prose is spare and light.
“And did I mention the new Trans-Canada Highway being built on the other side of the river? If we are told next that our area has been chosen for a model alien colony, everyone will probably just say fine, whatever.”
Some people have an easier time with change than others. “You really don’t know what other people think about. You can’t know what other people are saying to themselves when they’re sitting home alone.”
There is an old-fashioned air to Ruby’s recounting, which is appropriate given that the novel is set in 1960’s New Brunswick. “An important way to tell that an event is truly awful is when you lose count of how many long-dead people you’ve heard are probably rolling in their graves.”
But there is also a sense of timelessness. Not every young woman experiences her hometown being drowned, but nearly every one askes the more basic questions with which Ruby is preoccupied (“I wonder if you can be disqualified from your own life?”) and has serious doubts about her choices and desires (“I think maybe my whole life is one big miscalculation.”).
There is a strange anticipatory sense of loss from the beginning of the story, however, which contrasts with Ruby’s (and Percy’s) youth.
Even the bottles which Percy releases into the river (proverbial messages to the unknown) echo across the story. And not just what we have lost, but also what we have never had, what desires will never be fulfilled.
“I really don’t believe in ghosts, but as I lie here ghosts are easier to think about than the idea that this space I am filling, the air I am breathing, will soon be out of reach to anyone alive. It will be deep in the river. Every invisible dot in front of me now, contained in these walls called my room, will be drowned and gone.”
There is a mystical element to The Town that Drowned, which is perhaps unsurprising. The drowning of a town is rather a bizarre and mythic kind of event; even though it is part of the historical record, it’s the kind of happening which seems unbelievable.
And in a town in which the main event is the view of the water, it’s quite a shake-up to suddenly find your life there plunged beneath the surface.
Riel Nason skilfully guides readers through that immersion; her debut is simply compelling.