The Drowning House: A Novel

The Drowning House: A Novel

by Elizabeth Black


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Mourning for her daughter and her crumbling marriage, photographer Clare Porterfield returns to her childhood home in Galveston, Texas, hoping to find distraction in mounting an exhibition featuring the island’s vivid history.
Things haven’t changed much during her decade away: her relationship with her mother and older sister is still fraught and competitive, and their neighbors, the Carradays, wield the same moneyed influence they have for generations. But Clare finds that she is now an outsider, out of step with the unique rhythms of Galveston life. As she copes with her grief by digging deeper into the past, she discovers secrets that have grown and multiplied like the wildflowers that climb up Island walls and fences—secrets that will give her a new understanding of her own history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307949066
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/08/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.38(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Black was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island and now lives in Houston, Texas. The Drowning House is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

If there was a sign, I missed it. But I knew I was in Texas when I swerved to avoid a shape by the side of the road. It must have been around six in the morning, the first thin light just visible through the pines, when I crossed over the state line.

I stopped and backed up to confirm that the shape was a chest of drawers. Or rather the skeleton of one, since the drawers them­selves were gone and the empty spaces where they should have been gaped open. I’d lived away long enough to find the sight incongruous. But it came back to me all at once, the things I’d seen abandoned at the side of the road in Texas. Not just on rural blacktops but along the busiest superhighways—gut-ripped mattresses, clothing, suitcases, and once, a velvet rocking chair.

It was what you might expect in a country at war—personal belongings strewn along the side of the road, as though their owners’ lives had exploded, sending them flying. Or on the frontier, when travelers came this way as a last resort. In the days when “Gone to Texas” meant you were desperate.

It was May 1990, and still cool enough at night to leave the car windows open. I heard a bobwhite whistle, and I whistled back, but the only response was a quick flurry of wings. Bobwhites have different calls—for assembly, for food sharing, calls of alarm and flight. Probably I had said the wrong thing.

I had been driving for several days. Early on, I’d left the route Michael had drawn for me on the map. It was a route as unlikely as the map itself, where the entire continent was an uninterrupted expanse of green. As I drove up the ramp onto my first stretch of freeway, the map blew into the backseat, and I let it lie there.

Before I left, Michael and I had argued. He couldn’t get away, he had a case coming up for trial. “I’ll put you on a plane if you want,” he said.

“You’ll put me?”

“Clare, it’s just a phrase.”

“You know I can’t fly.”

We’d had the same exchange before. What usually happened next was that Michael would shrug and go back to his desk, with its shifting piles of papers and stacks of books on torts and civil procedure, and I would wander the apartment, picking things up and replacing them like someone seeing it all for the first time.

Instead I said, “I’ll drive.” Saying it made it seem like something I could do.

“You’re going to drive to Texas from D.C.? By yourself?” Now I had his full attention. “You haven’t driven anywhere in months.”

I had tried. I’d gone out to the garage, keys in hand. I’d seen through the window Bailey’s blue parka lying on the backseat, one arm flung out in a gesture so vividly like her that for a moment I could almost believe she was alive. Then the truth washed over me. Bright spots swam up from the concrete floor and my legs began to shake. I went back into the house.

Michael had even suggested selling the station wagon, but I’d resisted.

“Well.” Michael is tall, and when he concentrates, he looks down and frowns. I had once found it attractive, the way he would focus his energy on a problem only to forget it completely a moment later, raising his head and gazing out again at his own serene world. That was before I’d ever supposed I could be the problem. “If it will make you happy.”

I didn’t tell him that happiness had always seemed to me to descend suddenly, when you least expected it, like a sun shower. That often it wasn’t until much later you could look back and say, then, on that ordinary morning, with a car full of six-year-olds squirming and kicking, as the station wagon flashed through the dappled light of the tree-lined streets, then I was truly happy.

“Michael, don’t,” I said.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t deal with me. I’m not a client.” In the end, he tried to give me the keys to his car, the BMW. The offer was real. Still, he was visibly relieved when I declined. He did give me the map and a judicious kiss on the cheek. Our bodies didn’t touch. We had not been good together in bed for some time.

After about an hour, I exited the freeway, pulled over, and buried my face in my sleeve. There were so many trucks and trailers, and even the compact cars whizzed by so fast that the station wagon seemed to shift in their wake. I took a few deep breaths. There were other routes. I would find a secondary road and keep heading south, the way travelers did when America was truly new and green.

I slept in snatches. I showered twice—at a campground, where a raccoon watched from the edge of the wooden deck, and at a women’s shelter, where the sad-faced desk clerk asked no questions. I ate while I drove, littering the back of the station wagon with fast-food wrappers. I passed any number of motels and restaurants. But I was afraid to make a real stop, afraid that if I did, I might reconsider. Once I was in Texas, I knew the Gulf would draw me. Its pull was stronger than anything I’d left behind.

If I had been asked, I would have said that I’d lost my daughter a year ago—two months and three days after her sixth birthday. I lost Bailey. That was the way I thought of it, and the thought was both hopeful and damning. Lost suggested that she might someday be found, as if she had wandered into the next aisle at the grocery store or been forgotten by the car pool, that she might reappear, absently twirling a damp strand of hair around one finger. Still, anyone listening carefully would understand that it was an admission of guilt. I lost her.

I also lost the person I was then, the person I was becoming. The new Clare I saw reflected in Michael’s eyes—listless and unresponsive, she spent too many hours sleeping, too many hours in the twilight of the darkroom working from old negatives.

Of course, Michael’s was not the only perspective. Jules, my agent, would have said more positive things. That I was a young photographer whose star had risen suddenly. That I had been invited to Galveston to choose material for an exhibition. And it was true. In my camera bag I had the letter confirming everything.

It had arrived late one afternoon. I was lying on the bed, still wearing the leggings and frayed T-shirt I’d slept in. Soon Michael would call from his office and ask if I were dressed. I would say yes and he would pretend to believe me. Then he would remind me of the upcoming partners’ dinner. You should get out more, he would say. But when I thought of the hotel dining room where the dinners took place, of the bleak expanse of white linen, the tightly wired flower arrangements, the recirculated air that smelled faintly of cleaning fluid—all of it so like one of the nicer funeral homes—I knew it was impossible.

Then an image came to me. I was still holding the phone, answering Michael’s questions—Yes I remember, yes of course I have something that isn’t black—when it presented itself, a face in partial shadow. I hung up and went back to bed, pulling the covers over me, but the face followed. Finally I got up again and went to look for a book.

In a cardboard box, still unpacked, I found the Cartier-Bresson volume and turned the pages until I came to a photo showing the interior of a once grand Galveston hotel. A sign tacked to the wall reminded boarders to pay their rent in advance. On the landing was an elderly woman, her body shapeless in a flowered housecoat. Darkness poured out of the doorway behind her and rose up from the baseboards, so that her face and body were split into light and shadow.

It was one of several images of Galveston looking sad and shabby, images that had caused controversy when the book was first published. Others were different. Cartier-Bresson had also captured in his photographs the sensuality, the drowsy, self-indulgent beauty of the Island.

That was when I began to think about Patrick. And the Carradays. The big house where I’d spent so many hours. The questions I’d left unanswered.

I grew up watching the tides, and I know it’s only after change is under way that we recognize it, when the incoming rush catches us unaware, and we hurry to gather our things and move up the beach. Still I ask myself, when? When was there no longer any going back? Suppose I had stayed with Michael, attended the dinner. Could I have become again the woman he loved and married, the Clare who was Bailey’s mother? Could I have made myself give up those other thoughts? And if I had, would everything else have been different?

at a gas station next to a produce stand, I parked and waited for sleep, hoping I wouldn’t dream. My dreams were always about falling. Things dropped around me—branches snapped, walls and roofs collapsed, objects of all kinds plunged from the sky. Sometimes I fell—down stairs, off bridges.

When I woke I went to the restroom, splashed my arms and face with water, and drank from the faucet. I dried myself with brown paper towels. I realized I was hungry, and I bought a pint basket of blackberries and ate a few. I’d stashed a half-eaten package of crackers under the front seat, and as I drove south, I finished what was left, swallowing hard and coughing up crumbs.

Past Houston the landscape began to flatten and simplify. There were no more pipe yards or feed stores, no more roadside chapels or ice houses advertising beer and pool. I saw white smoke drifting from the Texas City refineries. An egret lifting itself on leisurely wings. I could feel the presence of the bay and the deeper water beyond.

I thought of Bailey and told myself that the pain of losing her would diminish. That someday I would have the memory without the hurt. And while the sun glinted off passing cars and the breeze whipped around my ears, it seemed possible. I drove faster. Soon I came to the shallow rise that offers the first glimpse of Galveston.

Below was the old causeway, a series of sand-colored arches that skimmed the water next to the higher, modern road. The approaches at either end had been washed away, so that only the middle stood, rising abruptly from the water, like the spine of some ancient animal whose submerged skeleton had unexpectedly shifted.

Probably there were practical reasons why the old causeway had never been torn down. To me it said something about the Island, marked it as a place where the ideal of progress was complicated by stubborn survivals. A place where you could sometimes see the past running alongside the present.

The surface of the bay was broken only by the creamy trails of pleasure boats. Overhead, clouds hung huge and motionless as mountains. I saw nothing that would have been out of place in a travel brochure. Nothing to explain the feeling I had, like the one you get when the roller coaster leaves the loading platform and starts to move slowly, inexorably, up the first incline. For this was the Texas Gulf coast, the soft, sinking-down edge of the continent, and there wasn’t a real hill for miles.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black's suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus."
—John Berendt, New York Times bestselling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

"A spellbinding debut novel, a story of secrets, loss and the redemptive power of truth ... Black’s luxurious prose makes Galveston into a dark, fading fairy-tale world, and her descriptions of Clare’s internal strife reveal a keen insight into the human condition that eludes many more seasoned novelists. A page-turning chronicle of grief and memory, The Drowning House is a remarkable blend of human drama and satisfyingly Southern Gothic mystery, propelled by Black’s lyrical, haunting narration."

"A fine debut ... Black mythologizes this landscape, evoking its essence and that of its inhabitants, creating a novel that is far more than the sum of its parts."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Engrossing ... A multigenerational, thrillingly evocative and witty novel ... Black excels at summoning the unique culture of Galveston, its tragic past and scruffy present."
The Dallas Morning News

"Prepare to be lost in Elizabeth Black's Galveston. Strange, mysterious, and utterly riveting, The Drowning House is a captivating mystery as well as a beautifully realized story about grief that skillfully evokes the heat, humidity, and languid desire that pervade Gulf Coast life."
—Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog

"As dark and gleaming as a ruby, Elizabeth Black’s suspenseful debut limns the slippery nature of truth surrounding a shocking tragedy, with language so exquisite you’ll be underlining phrases."
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You

"Black, a poet, takes great care to construct each paragraph to reflect the complicated physical and emotional landscape of Clare's hometown ... A novel that encapsulates the convoluted machinations of a powerful family within the larger context of a society that supports its own, no questions asked."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Elizabeth Black’s The Drowning House.

1. The Drowning House opens with two quotes, one from The Dallas Times Herald in 1966 and the other from famed American photographer Walker Evans. How does the first quote set the stage for what happens in the novel?  Why do you think Walker Evans meant?  How does Clare follow in his footsteps?

2. In Chapter 27, Clare states, “I had always believed that because I observed the world through the lens of my camera, because I looked at things in ways others didn’t, I saw more. Now I understood that I had failed to perceive what other(s) ... registered at once.” What did you make of this realization on Clare’s part? How does Clare use photography to distance herself from other people?  How does she use it to understand her own experience? 

3. Consider the book’s setting of Galveston, Texas, and the author’s description of life on the island.  How important is the setting of Galveston to what happens to Stella in the book?  To Clare?

4. The Drowning House features women in many different roles:  wife, mother, professional, mistress.  How do the women in the novel define themselves in those roles?  How do their roles shift over the course of the novel?

5. When she thinks about her daughter, Clare wonders whether she lived up to her role as a parent.  What do children really need from their parents?  How do the characters in the Drowning House fail to meet their children’s needs?

6. Grief and the different ways in which people deal with grief, is a major thread that runs throughout the novel.  What insights did you gain from the novel about this complicated process?

7. Consider the legend of Stella Carraday and the truth about her life.  Are there parallels to be drawn between Stella and any of the book’s modern-day characters?  If so, how do they enhance the reading experience?

8. What is the difference between history and legend?  How do events become part of history?  Do local/historical attitudes shape what comes down to us as fact? 

9. Did you know much about the Galveston Storm of 1900 before reading The Drowning House? What do you think it means to live in place like Galveston, where storms are a way of life?

10. Many of us have had the experience of returning home as an adult to find that things are not as we remembered.  Why is it so important for Clare to have this near-universal experience?  How does the knowledge she gains change her and prepare her for the rest of her life?

11. Almost every character in the book has a secret. Talk about the role secrets play in The Drowning House.  What are some of the different motives that keep the characters from sharing what they know?

Customer Reviews

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The Drowning House: A Novel 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Humbee More than 1 year ago
Quickly go grab a copy of this book. It's hopping off the shelves. There were only two copies left at my local book store. Articulate and hypnotic, this is a novel that flows and speeds towards a conclusion and will hold you captive for hours. Elizabeth Black can't possibly be a debut author, I thought! Her book is so good, I was reminded of "Prince of Tides" from the get-go. I absolutely couldn't put it down. Told from the perspective of Clare, a young artistic photographer who has just experienced the death of her only child and who returns to her childhood home, it is a break-neck suspense novel and Southern Gothic. It takes place around Galveston Island with its own set of mysteries and island lore, town folk isms and traditions that kept me on the edge of my seat. Ms Black has a distinct voice that is seductive. She is a writer of the old school in that she knows how to tell a tale about the South with its idiosyncrasies and love of the strange and absurd, characters in particular, families that are eccentric and enduring. I could read her work all night long. Let me give you an example: "...Every instant of every day, life is streaming past, all experience--every action, word, or thought, every particle of intention--rushing toward some moment you can't foresee that is anything but safe. Toward, perhaps, one ordinary afternoon." and "...marriage is generally unfathomable..." She had no understanding even of her own. I resonated with this author from the moment I picked up her book. She was writing my story; in my head, speaking my thoughts. If there's one book you should read this year it's this one. I have a feeling it's going to be one of my favorites. 5 shining stars for a debut author Deborah/TheBookishDame
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and immediately looked to see if there were others by this author when I finished it. I was disapointed to find that there are no more at this time. The ending left me a little disapointed but I still loved it in general.
arlenadean More than 1 year ago
Author: Elizabeth Black Published By: Nan A. Talese Age Recommended: Adult Reviewed By: Arlena Dean Book Blog For: GMTA Rating: 4 Review: "The Drowning House" by Elizabeth Black was indeed a novel that will take you into a Gothic mystery, thriller, and suspenseful read all rolled up into one. This novel definitely kept me turning the pages to see where the author was taking me on this ride. The setting is from Galveston, Texas where we find Clare has come home to do some work as a archival photographer where she has been recruited to put together a show about Galveston... showing old photos from the families and library. However, Clare seems to be somewhat interested in 'Stella Tale.' Now what is that all about? We find that she is very unhappy due to the fact of her marriage has fallen apart and more so...the terrible accident that took her daughter's life. Now that Clare is back in Galveston she finds that there is not much change in her relationship with her mother and taking about a dysfunctional family! Clare seems to find this "a place filled with corrosive relationships and family secrets" dealing with the Carraday and Porterfield families. Now what is this all about? Will Clare find any peace here? I found some of the characters were not very likable and I will only say you will have to pick up "The Drowning House" to see who they may be, however I still enjoyed the read. Ms. Black does a wonderful job in the excellent descriptions that are given on the Galveston area...making you feel as you are there, especially if you have been there you will be able to identify it. Also, the history of Galveston was simply well written. From the read I could see that really Clare is drowning from her memories of Galveston, along with a bad marriage, the death of her child along with a few other things... Now, with all that being said you will have to pick up the this good read and if you are like me ... you may get a suprise ending. So, would I recommend "The Drowning House" to you? YES!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good read. Hard to put down. Gave thoughts of ones own life experiences.
Beamis12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This author has a very unique and distinct writing style, rather elegant yet matter of fact. I read Isaac's Storm not to long ago, about the Hurricane that devastated Galveston and this book covers the history of Galveston from the viewpoint of the residents that lived there than and live there now. Galveston is a much the main character as is the photographer Claire. Ghosts and mysteries from the past meet up with the now adult Claire, trying to clarify for herself, things she does not understand from her own short past. Searching for answers to things that had been left unfinished as well as trying to understand her lack of closeness with both her mother and sister. This is a slow unveiling of a story set against a backdrop of family revelations and tragedies. This is a novel I savored more than rushed through.
Stewartry on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is filled with ghosts. It's no Turn of the Screw, where unaccountable figures appear and create an aura of dread, or "Ghosthunters", where intrepid investigators try to provoke taps and disembodied voices. This book is filled with the kind of spectres most everyone has to live with. Something terrible happened in the course of an ordinary day ¿ was there anything you could have done to prevent it? Everyone else in the world proceeds through such commonplaces with no misfortune ¿ how could it have gone so horribly for you? An accident in the past ¿ also with terrible and unforeseen results, some immediate and some farther reaching ¿ again, why? How? A figure from the past, once closer than anyone but not seen in years, seems to evade you ¿ why? Has he, someone asks, been in touch in all the years since the last time you saw him? Well, no ¿ but ¿ No. He lingers just outside your field of vision, almost glimpsed, almost sensed. Another ghost. There is a Galveston legend, according to this book, of a girl who ran off with her lover, not realizing a hurricane was about to strike; she died, and did so rather spectacularly. This old and dear friend, evading contact now, is almost as ephemeral as that girl's spectre. Or perhaps it is she who is almost as real and present as he is. The Drowning House is the sort of book which makes it very easy to make assumptions about the author. It's such an intimate portrait of Galveston ¿ she must have lived there, and probably was born there. It's about the loss of a child ¿ it's so intimate and raw she must have lost a child. It's about the end of a marriage ¿ not with the bang nor even the whimper but more with a sort of sad sigh ¿ she must have seen a marriage end like this. The main character's own horrible childhood ¿ the author must have experienced something like this for it to be so real. But, truly, this just serves to take away from the ability of the writer. Maybe Elizabeth Black is just like Clare, her main character; maybe she was born and raised in Moldavia and any resemblance to fictional persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. It doesn't matter. What matters is that she has created a beautiful book. This was a Netgalley offering, read with thanks.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sentence structure is great. Story, not so much...the twists and turns are pretty obvious...there was missing closure on a couple characters... If you always side with professional critics, you'll love it...if you can think for yourself, you may wanna skip this one.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When i read the preview i expected more of a "chick book" which is not realy my thing. Good story interspersed with local interest.
Ireadlots More than 1 year ago
After suffering a devastating loss, Clare Porterfield returns to Galveston Island where she grew up. The author's evocative prose and knowledge of the island's history sets a moody backdrop for the unfolding of family secrets and the resolution of mysteries that will keep the reader engaged to the end. Book clubs will find many points for discussion in this finely written first effort by a keenly observant new author.
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markwmcintire More than 1 year ago
I probably would have loved this book because Elizabeth Black is terrific; however, Barnes and Noble sent me the wrong book and seem unable to send me the right one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi Hunter it is me Lexi.
AnyaPetrova More than 1 year ago