'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Review: Deep Water

Sarah Epstein's first YA novel, Small Spaces exploded onto our bookshelves in 2018 with such impact, I for one was caught in the story for days after the last page.

Her second novel (and really there should be no comparison), Deep Water rocked my pillars a little less emphatically , however still carry the crystalline Epstein hallmarks of high tension and riveting character play. It's not easy to maintain a cohesive and believable set of individually strong characters within a mystery setting yet Epstein does so without missing a single beat.

Six childhood friends in a small backwater country town in NSW struggle to maintain the bonds that united them as youngsters. As each matures, they battle with the reality of altered feelings, identity and future expectations.

Emotionally charged, Mason Weaver is desperate to escape the stranglehold of his decaying mother. Frustration and cruel circumstance fuel his anger although he suspects his uncontrollable outbursts and alcohol crutches are legacies of his genetics. His younger half-brother, Henry is just as bruised by their toxic domestic situation and pleas with Mason to remain for his sake.

Chloe Baxter, now living with her mum in Sydney returns to Shallow Reservoir for the Easter holidays, three months after the disappearance of Henry Weaver. It's an event that rocked the township and created an ache in Chloe that refuses to fade. The soft spot she harboured for Henry transforms into an ardent desire to find him or at least find out exactly why he might have run away that fateful night.

Chloe enlists the help of her closest mates to drive her detective suspicions and findings forever closer to the truth. Quiet, considered and conflict-adverse, Tom; sunshine bright and forever bubbly, Sabeen; ruggedly reclusive crush, Raf; they balance Chloe's commanding, right-here, right-now ways whilst providing a possible line up of suspects. If indeed there are any at all.

Rage and yearnings, unrequited feelings and remorse all tangle into a nervous knot of teenage agitation which although slow to ignite, soon flame into a gripping firestorm equal to the terrible tempest that ripped through the town the night of Henry's disappearance. The storm being a symbolic catalyst of beginnings and endings, a metaphor for the turmoil each of the Chloe's friends are experiencing as they navigate their way to adulthood.

Alternating points of view rarely unnerve me and I found Epstein's use of them interesting. One would think Chloe's first person narration would generate a deeper sense of empathy for her yet for me, it was with Mason whom I felt a real affinity for despite his story being told in the more distancing third person. Perhaps this intentional out spacing inadvertently emphasized the futility of his situation creating a kind of rebel-with-a-cause mantle that attracted rather than repelled. At least it did for this reader, not so for Chloe who is convinced the secrets Mason keeps are the key to Henry's whereabouts. The use of here and now time frames to describe each person's version of the events accentuates tension and ramps up the pace in the most addictive way.

Sinister insinuations simmer just below the surface of this beguiling mystery which had me furiously enthralled by the end, and as desperate as the Shallow Reservoir teens to find the answer to the question: Where is Henry Weaver?

The guts and grit of some of the adult themes (sexuality, domestic violence, identity, missing persons and criminality) makes Deep Water well suited to upper teens although mature readers from the age of 14 should enjoy the diverse edgy reality of this tale just as much.

Title: Deep Water
Author: Sarah Epstein
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, $19.99
Publication Date: April 2020
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781760877286
For ages: 14+
Type: Young Adult Fiction