Monday, November 23, 2009

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: Joshilyn Jackson

I read The Girl Who Stopped Swimming in about two days. An innocuous hardcover volume with an alluring title and cover, this book is possibly the hardest I’ve ever had to review. I simply have no idea where to start! It is so filled with story, emotion, social commentary, and fantastic writing that I find it hard to separate the elements and gather my thoughts into any kind of cohesive form. That said, bear with me as I try to articulate this novel into a review.

Laurel sees ghosts. She was haunted by the ghost of her uncle Marty after he died in her childhood, but he disappeared from her nights when she moved to the gated community of Victorianna when she got married. Now she’s living a relatively average life as a wife to computer programmer David, and mother to teenage daughter Shelby. Average until she wakes up one night to find a dripping wet neighborhood girl standing in her bedroom. The ghost is that of Molly, a neighborhood kid and friend of Shelby. Molly’s ghost directs Laurel to the swimming pool in the backyard where Molly floats, face down and bloated. The death of the neighborhood girl is a trigger that sends Laurel and her family on an emotional roller coaster. Laurel brings her willful sister Thalia to stay with her, which brings past events into light that explain why Marty’s ghost haunted Laurel as a child. While facing long repressed demons, Laurel tries to maintain her grip on her family, who are rapidly unwinding.

Around the edges of this story is a theme of social morality. Laurel and Thalia were rescued from an Appalachian life in a small town called DeLop by their strong-willed mother who pulled herself out of the mining town through a successful marriage, never to look back. DeLop is described in cruelly clear detail as a place where children never graduate junior high school, and people develop addictions to ward off the misery. Laurel tries to protect Shelby from the ugliness of such a place by never taking her back to visit the cousins left behind. When Shelby shows interest in knowing how the other half lives, Laurel bends, allowing Shelby to make a DeLop pen pal named Bet. In Bet, the differences between Victorianna and DeLop are highlighted. Where Shelby is educated and healthy, Bet speaks with the twang of her DeLop upbringing and is starkly malnourished. Joshilyn Jackson has put a lot of thought and care into the details of illustrating the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

While this novel could easily be about the accidental drowning of a young girl and stop there, Jackson is unmerciful in her efforts to make the death only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much meat to this story that it hooks the reader on many levels. I felt my heart strings tugged and my guts wrenched, my mind working overtime to figure out whodunit and my anxiety peaked as the story unraveled. Jackson is definitely a writer worth reading.


  1. How did I miss this? I'm intrigued You GET the concept of story so well, my friend. Wouldn't it be cool if YOU had a monthly publication featuring good reads that people could just pull up on their cell phones? I'd love having that kind of a resource as I poke through Borders and Barnes and Noble. I wish the publishing world wasn't so profit oriented. I know it always has been. I guess that's why we have libraries. I'm such a fan of yours, C (I mean B) !!

  2. I think I found this book the same way you did- the title kind of grabbed my attention. I really enjoyed it, even when you sort of knew where it was heading.