Wally Lamb is an author not afraid to tackle painful issues. In I Know This Much is True, which was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, we follow the life of twin brothers, one of whom develops paranoid schizophrenia and cuts off his own hand in the opening pages. This book was followed by The Hour I First Believed (2008), which interfaces fiction with such non-fictional events as the Columbine High School shooting and the Iraq War.
In We are Water, Lamb returns to the familiar setting of Three Rivers, a fictional town in Connecticut, which is also Lamb’s home state.
The theme of water is keenly present in the sea and, most importantly, in the 1963 flood (a real event) that killed Annie Oh’s mother and baby sister when she was only five. Her safe and regular childhood falls apart as her father, consumed with guilt, succumbs to alcoholism. A series of foster homes is followed by a series of dead-end job before she meets Orion, a warm and caring man who ‘saves’ her as though she were an injured bird. Her back story is revealed only gradually through the voices of Annie and other characters from her past, as she has never shared the traumatic events of her childhood with her psychologist husband.
At the start of the novel, Annie is 52 and a successful artist. After years as a frustrated housewife and mother, she was discovered by the art collector that once discovered the naïf painter Josephus Jones, a man whose story weaves in and out of Annie’s own. Now, Annie has left Orion and is about to remarry, this time to a woman. At the same time as Annie has gained love and success, Orion’s fortunes have reversed. He has lost not only his wife - to a woman - but also, following allegations of misconduct by a student, his university job and the regard of his peers.
This story, on the face of it about love and loss and family, has a dark underside. We see bigotry displayed in the racist attitudes of the early 1960s that so affected Josephus Jones. Now, it is Annie who is confronted by homophobic attitudes to her same-sex partnership. Have we come as far as we think, or has our focus merely changed? We experience the appalling outcomes of child abuse, as the abused becomes the perpetrator in the next generation. As the story builds to its devastating climax, another question is posed: Is murder ever justifiable?
The story is told from the viewpoints of the various Oh family members as well as other interconnecting individuals, switching back and forth in time. This can sometimes feel a bit clunky – no sooner are we into one character than we are introduced to the next. Some of the voices are stronger than others and it takes a bit of patience to see all the characters’ relevance to the story. But patience is rewarded and the overall experience is of a satisfying and thought-provoking read.
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