Book Review: Deep Water by Sarah Epstein

Deep Water, Sarah Epstein, Allen and Unwin, 2020

 

From the publisher:

HENRY WEAVER IS MISSING

Three months ago, thirteen-year-old Henry disappeared from The Shallows during a violent storm, leaving behind his muddy mountain bike at the train station.

 

MASON WEAVER IS TRAPPED

While Mason doesn’t know who he is or what he’s capable of, he knows the one thing binding him to this suffocating small town is his younger brother, Henry.

 

CHLOE BAXTER WANTS ANSWERS

Why would Henry run away without telling her? One of Chloe’s friends knows something and she’s determined to find out the truth.

 

As Chloe wades into dangerous waters and Mason’s past emerges, a chilling question ripples to the surface: how far would you go to keep a secret?

 

I have wondered my whole life why people read crime novels. The world outside has always seemed a frightening enough place, without adding to the fear with fiction.

The book that turned me around was Sarah Epstein’s masterful Small Spaces, a YA novel that (deservedly) blazed its way through the book awards season, leaving a trail of devoted, devastated readers in its wake. I was one of those readers. Epstein’s book that finally made me get it.

There is something cathartic about crime fiction – some comfort to be found in feeling fear that is safe. While we might be encountering travails in our out-of-book lives, they inevitably pale in comparison with the terrors faced by the characters crime authors put through their paces.

Small Spaces was an incredible book. I have been waiting eagerly for Epstein’s sophomore effort and was thrilled when my beloved local bookshop phoned to say it had arrived.

I never could have imagined, when I read Small Spaces, that I would not be going to the bookshop in person to pick up Deep Water. I could never have imagined that it would, instead, be personally delivered to my house by those amazing booksellers because I would be reading Epstein’s second novel in the middle of a global pandemic.

The world outside seems infinitely more terrifying now than it was when I read Small Spaces. For this reason (among many others), I valued this novel even more than the first.

The “many other” reasons are, of course, a direct result of Sarah Epstein’s talent.

I fell into this book completely and was thoroughly transported into the “rural noir” world she created. Both the sleepy small town and its inhabitants felt achingly real. I’m Tasmanian. We’re basically one big sleepy small town so I can spot a fake a mile away. Having gone through a horrendous bush fire season, the flood-ravaged town, simmering with resentment and grief and suspicion, took on an extra layer of authenticity.

I also know well the way small rural communities function, having spent the first half of my life living in one. I felt like I knew all the characters and it’s a testament to Epstein’s skill that not one of them felt one-dimensional.

Chloe was a dogged, determined, fierce protagonist, but not without her flaws, putting teenage crushes ahead of the friendship she knew a young boy sorely needed.

Mason was another deeply flawed character, but the source of his torment was so heart-breaking that there was no chance of judging him too harshly for his actions.

Despite few appearances in the action of the story, little Henry was also gut-wrenchingly real. I so wanted to rescue him, take him home with me and feed him cake. Every page of the book was imbued with heartache at his situation and creeping dread at the prospect of finding out his fate.

This novel covers some really tough territory – alcoholism, family violence, poverty, depression and inter-generational trauma are all explored with a deft touch. The central mystery is full of twists and turns that are both genuinely surprising and utterly believable.

Epstein is also adept at the use of unreliable narrators and I never once during the reading process felt like I could entirely trust what I was being told.

I am so grateful to this book for the reprieve it provided me from the anxiety of real life right now. I think we are all struggling with short attention spans as we grapple with the deluge of news and “new normals”, each and every day. This book held my attention, completely, with the exception of each incidence of lack of social distancing between the characters.

And, of course, that bone-chillingly frightening moment when, in the darkness, the central character heard a shadowy, unseen figure …

Cough …

My heart very nearly stopped.

Sometimes, it’s hard to shut out reality completely. But this wonderful book helped me get very close.

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