Narrator: Angéle Masters
Published by Hachette Audio on 3/25/12
Edge of Dark Water is part coming of age story, part murder mystery, a lot Southern Gothic story, part river adventure, part… well, it’s a whole lot of things but most importantly – it’s a very good book. Joe R. Lansdale creates an extremely well-drawn sense of time and place with characters who immediately grabbed my attention. There’s a very “classic” feel to much of this story (think To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn) with well-placed doses of horror. Although the writing by itself would have sucked me in to the story, the narration did an excellent job of stepping up the experience just that much more.
The story is set in depression era East Texas where young May Lynn’s body is found at the bottom of the Sabine River weighted down with a sewing machine tied to her ankles. That discovery sets in motion a chain of events that propel sixteen year old Sue Ellen, her “sissy” friend Terry, and their “colored” friend Jinx out of childhood and onto a painful path towards adulthood. Beautiful May Lynn dreamed of movie stars and California and after discovering her secret map to a stash of stolen money, Sue Ellen and her friends decide to burn May Lynn’s body and carry her ashes to Hollywood. In the process, Sue Ellen thinks to escape a drunk and abusive father and a mother who has medicated herself into nothingness with her bottles of laudanum-laced “cure-all” while Terry wants to leave behind his step-father’s controlling ways and Jinx is more than willing to leave behind her life of drudgery and deeply entrenched racism. When money is involved though, the consequences can be deadly and in addition to battling the river on their way out of Texas, Sue Ellen, Terry, Jinx, and Sue Ellen’s mother end up playing a life-and-death game of hide-and-seek with a corrupt sheriff, Sue Ellen’s uncle, and a legendary bogeyman – the tracker and killer known as “Skunk.”
There’s an almost elegiac quality to the first half of the story as the characters reveal themselves in all their poverty, twisted home lives, and the crushing economic and social realities of the era. What buoys this story of leaving youth behind, though, is the resiliency of spirit that inhabits each character. Sue Ellen’s voice as narrator is down-to-earth and forthright and while her daddy may beat her and her mother, she’s more than willing to brandish a piece of stove wood to ensure he keeps his hands to himself at night. I didn’t find Jinx to be as fully developed of a character as I would have liked because several times she seemed to be along solely as the snappy side-kick (granted, some of her lines were laugh-out-loud amusing). Terry was much like the river: a seemingly steady path to an end but with some surprising undercurrents. As I watched them navigate through each other’s lives with all the destructive and beneficial power that can exist among friends I was riveted.
When the book takes a turn in the middle as the events the characters are running from catch up to them, there are several sharp bursts of tension and action that were extremely well paced and they generated far more tension in me as a reader than I’ve experienced with a book in a long time. A few particularly gruesome scenes didn’t faze me as I had given myself over to the bubble of time and place the author so deftly created. The characters were also brought to life in such a way that even some small complaints I have about some of the level of dialogue and banter these teenagers had as well as Sue Ellen’s mother’s Helen of Troy-like beauty – even after years of drug use, abuse, and rough travel – failed to do more than flit through my mind and fade away as I once again submerged in the tale.
While there’s certainly enough well-paced plotting to maintain the reader’s attention, the book really shines in its prose. The similes and descriptions were alternately beautiful and colorful but they were dished out sparingly and avoided veering into anything resembling a stereotypical country-dweller or redneck characterization. The personalities were vivid from the start but continued to build and be refined and as events progress we see Sue Ellen, Terry, and Sue Ellen’s mother pared down to the essence of their character as they struggle to survive and move into whatever their futures hold. The Texas landscape and everyone who peoples it in this book are brought to life with regional phrases, activities (e.g. fishing by electrocuting them with a crank phone) and a clear portrait of a harsh way of life.
I really enjoyed Angéle Masters’ narration. I only had one issue with it but it also highlights one of the outstanding areas. I occasionally had a hard time differentiating between Sue Ellen’s dialogue, her mother’s, and sometimes Jinx’s as well if their lines weren’t very long because they often had a pretty similar pitch. Given a short period of time with either one speaking, though, and it was crystal clear who was talking because every character in this book was given their own speech patterns and cadences within the overall Texas drawl. The accent was another area that stood out for me. I’m accustomed to narrators using a generic Southern drawl to portray a character from anywhere in a wide swath of the Southern U.S. But Ms. Masters’ accent seemed distinctly Texas (granted, my only experience with that accent was a father-in-law from Texas but….) All of the other performance markers I listen for (or rather, ideally never notice because they’ve served to suck me into the story completely) such as each character’s distinct POV, the sense of a here and now and the discovery of events taking place just as the story unfurls, the care with which the author’s words were given weight as they were spoken, the pacing of the various scenes… it was all very nicely delivered.