A stack of 3 closed books (left); an open notebook with a pen on top (right). Title: 12 Novels Thata Changed How I Read Fiction

#8 “The Drowning People” by Richard Mason

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Book cover. Black background, with silhouette of large castle on a rock surrounded by water. Text: The Drowning People by Richard Mason

#8 The Drowning People by Richard Mason

© 2000

Date read: 2/1/2001

Richard Mason showed me how imagery and atmosphere can carry a novel and contribute to its meaning while also building tension and suspense.

The concept of drowning that appears in the title recurs frequently with imagery about the sea, crashing waves, fish, and swimming. While many of these images are literal, the narrator occasionally uses such imagery metaphorically to describe how people can be overwhelmed and dragged down by perceived obligations to conform to societal expectations. The narrator’s story involves young people coming of age within British society, with its expectations of proper behavior based on social class.

The recurrent imagery also creates a haunted and stifling gothic atmosphere. The ancestral home of the upper-class English family is a centuries-old large and creaky mansion located on a small rock island just off the coast of Cornwall. The mansion is surrounded by crashing waves just as the young adults of the story are surrounded by the waves of society’s expectations for them—expectations that clash with their own desires and beliefs.

The ominous atmosphere gives the novel an air of timelessness. The gothic effects themselves, remnants of the literature of an earlier time, make it easy for the reader to lose the sense of the novel’s current time. The present in the novel is about 50 years after the mid 1990s; the novel’s narrator is now nearly 70 years old; the main background story the narrator tells happened 45-50 years ago. Yet, because of the gothic atmosphere, the story seems timeless. Doesn’t the younger generation always chafe to break free of their parents’ expectations? And doesn’t the older generation always seek to pass on its legacy intact?

More than 20 years after I read this novel, it’s the timelessness and the inevitability, the weight of this story, that remains with me.

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

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