This Is The Water contains literary elements that should annoy: second-person narrative, semi-stream-of-conscience prose, clashing genres. But author Yannick Murphy’s novel about a swim mom and a serial killer works surprisingly well.
Annie (who is you) is a fiftysomething homemaker with two daughters on the swim team. The idyllic facade—the marriage, the beautiful home in rural New England, the community around the swim team—is crumbling long before a serial killer strikes, as Annie dwells on why her brother shot himself, worries if she fed her children enough carbs that day, resents her distant husband, and pines after a swim team dad. Mostly, her thoughts overpower the happiness she thinks she should be feeling. Murphy’s writing is disarming in that it captures the way people actually think—wandering from stupid topic to stupid topic, obsessing over a new lust, failing to stop thinking about something you can’t fix, desperately trying to control the constant self-narrating loop of the brain.
Annie’s recognizable, plaguing first-world hardships could be the entire story, and it would be a good story. Instead, Murphy ups her unnerving ability to put into words what it’s like to think to yourself by briefly implanting the reader into the head of a serial killer posed to slit the throat of his next victim, a 16-year-old girl on the swim team. Without deviating from the account of Annie’s mundane but devastating trials, the story becomes a classic murder mystery. It’s told, not through a genius detective or clever government agent, but through a nobody, an everywoman: you. The second-person use of Annie makes a lot of sense here; her methods of dealing with things are all too realistic. As she becomes increasingly affected by the string of deaths in her quiet town, Annie is still unable to quiet the unending inner howl that is her discontent.
There are more characters that float around the swim team—the cleaning lady at the pool, the other swim team parents, the teenage girl doomed to die—but entering the mind of a murderer is as unsettlingly uncomfortable as entering Annie’s mind is disquietingly familiar. These are two devastating stories spun together. It’s prescient that one is about girls and young women being murdered, and perhaps one of the reasons this book is such a punch to the gut (at least, to this female reviewer). As terrifying and gripping as that story is, the more interesting exploration is of Annie’s banal life and prosaic thoughts. That someone so exceedingly ordinary is thrust into the danger of a killer makes the story more compelling, but not more irresistible. The combination gives rise to an uncommon story. This Is The Water is quietly unlike anything else.