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the girl who stopped swimming

By: Joshilyn Jackson
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Via Brown
Grand Central Publishing, 2008
$23, Hardcover

Just who is the girl who stops swimming? The first few pages of Joshilyn Jackson’s new novel reveal that Molly, a neighbor’s child, is the girl found floating face down in the Hawthornes’ backyard pool, but as the story unfolds, it seems that everyone is drowning in their own sea of secrets.

Until a vision during one of her occasional bouts of sleepwalking leads her to find Molly’s body in the pool, Laurel Gray Hawthorne has what appears to be a near perfect life with her husband and daughter in a pale blue house in Victorianna, a beautiful gated suburb near Pensacola that “looks like Barbie’s Dream House threw up.” In her sewing room, Laurel creates award-winning art quilts.

Her husband, David, a computer whiz, appears to be nothing more than the games he creates, but pushed to protect his family, his true nature comes forth. Shelby, their thirteen-year-old daughter, has one foot in childhood and the other dangling in the angst of adolescence and she and her visiting pen pal Bet Clemmens, the flat-voiced girl from the backwoods, seem to know more than they let on about the night Molly died. Then there is Laurel’s mother, who under her sweet-tart voice hides her poor upbringing in DeLop, “a town so haunted that every tin shed and ’fraidy hole houses its own dark spirit.”

Against her husband’s wishes, Laurel enlists her sister, Thalia, whose name is “a synonym for all hell breaking loose,” to help discover who or what is responsible for the young girl’s death. Jackson deftly melds the sisters’ foray into their own past secrets with their efforts in solving the murder.

With words that are often frenetically strung together, Jackson weaves a classic good versus evil story into fiction usually shelved by bookstores as Southern Gothic literature; she even uses lower case in the title, which only furthers the offbeat thread. The multiple characters and the author’s extensive, but readable, descriptive sentences requires strict attention, but it’s worth the effort to discover who will keep their heads above water.

Like her own style of speaking, which includes plenty of passionate hand gestures and excited voice modulations, Jackson punctuates her fiction with idiosyncratic characters that just happen to live in the South. Their quirkiness is expected.

Elizabeth Via Brown is a freelance writer living in Montgomery.

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