Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick

Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. BickDrowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick
Narrator: Kathleen McInerney
Published by Audible, Inc. on 3/5/12
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

This is a very good book that takes an in-depth but never gratuitous look at quite a few issues which, if less skillfully done, might be considered cheap fodder for driving a YA novel. It’s the immediacy of Jenna’s first person narrative and the lack of moralizing that combines with the tension of the no “black and white” answers and uncertainty about what’s going to happen (and what has already happened) to create a story that should capture and hold the attention of almost any reader. The audiobook narration is well done and captures the emotional intent of the story and the very distinct ‘voice’ of Jenna as the storyteller.

The Plot:

I often think including a plot summary in a review is an excellent way to a) refresh my memory of what I want to talk about and b) include events from the book I found relevant that may not be part of the publisher’s blurb or jacket copy while also giving someone reading the review an idea of what my focus in the book was. In the case of Drowning Instinct, not only is there a slow unwinding of the story that shouldn’t be spoiled but I also just can’t beat the back cover copy from the hardback:

I’m beating around the bush. I know I am. I don’t want to tell this story, and you know why? Because this is a fairy tale with teeth and claws, and here’s what completely sucks: you’re going to want black and white, right and wrong. I’m not sure I can give that to you. That’s the problem with the truth. Sometimes the truth is ambiguous, or a really bad cliché.

But this is the truth: I’m a liar.

I am lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief —
and a killer.

And my reality —
my story —
begins with Mr. Anderson.

My Thoughts:

As Jenna uses a police detective’s voice recorder to detail the events leading up to her admittance to the emergency room, it quickly becomes clear that there are a lot of issues at play in this story. By the time the story starts, Jenna has been through a significant amount of trauma but she’s a young woman with a lot of resilience. Her story is compelling and the mental make-up of her character drew and held my interest but I did have a minor complaint: that degree of resilience in a sixteen year-old without allowing me direct observation of the back-story that details how it was acquired served to put her at one-remove from me in terms of establishing an emotional connection. The dysfunctional dynamics in Jenna’s family are clear but knowing about her alcoholic mother and controlling father and seeing how her childhood made her who she is are two different things. There’s a bit of sophistry in that comment though because complaining about the one layer of distance that caused is like skipping a third piece of cheesecake and pretending that’ll prevent weight gain – really, the investment was been made before that third piece.

Moving from psych ward patient to private “techie-science” school student is a bit of an adjustment for Jenna but as she settles in to her new school, she finds her way somewhat smoothed by her chemistry teacher. As her home life begins to slowly slide into greater disarray, Mr. Anderson becomes a touchstone for her. At this point, you may be thinking (as I was) I know how this is going to end but there were several surprises in store for me and the ending was only one of them. While most of the social/family issues in this story are subtly handled, it’s worth mentioning that Jenna’s struggles with cutting are front and center if that’s a topic you prefer to avoid.

This story is character-driven and part of what makes it so gripping is the gradual reveal of the psychological make-up and moral complexity of the characters. None of them are one-dimensional and they feel very true-to-life. The dynamics between Mr. Anderson and Jenna can whipsaw the reader’s emotions from one extreme to the other and as the threads of this story begin to wind together it’s like watching a disaster unfold. Not only was I not sure how the story would end though, I wasn’t even sure how I wanted it to end. The title represents only one of the metaphors in play in this book and I found it to be a particularly a powerful one. This is a story about family, where we find safety in our lives, how we navigate tragedy, and how we survive all of that. Jenna is most certainly a survivor but watching her get there was quite a ride.

The Narration:

Kathleen McInerney has an excellent read on the character of Jenna. She gives her an appropriately youthful voice and it morphs over the course of the story to reflect Jenna’s emotional changes. She is also one of the best narrators I’ve listened to in terms of differentiating male/female characters using only subtle tone or pitch changes. Although the listener is aware that the story structure is Jenna narrating past events, the sense of immediacy and “here and now” in the tale is fully realized. The emotions resonate through the narration and are never overdone, making them all the more powerful.

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