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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Waterbaby by Cris Mazza (Soft Skull Press)

          reviewed by Elizabeth Burns

I’ve not met an apt title like this one:  Waterbaby: Baby in the water, baby found in the water, baby rescued in a toilet, swimmer convulsing in the pool, baby rescued between two mattresses bound and thrown overboard to survive a sinking ship.

In the early part of the novel, we read of Tam, her brother Gary, her fairly benign sister Martha, her mostly silent mother, Tam’s former lover/swim coach Denny, and a haunting, sexy figure named Nate. It would be giving away too much to the reader to detail Tam’s adventures from here, but a preview is in the weather. In fact, the weather is its own character here, and the only triumphant being: The coast of Maine, sure of its place, consistent, egalitarian, and beautiful. Perpetual fog shrouds the histories, the past, the identities, and even the lovemaking.

Tam begins her journey for two reasons: one is to remove herself from the pained past, and the other is to research her lineage. The protagonists are guided by the beam of a lighthouse—a high and sturdy building that serves as a beacon against danger. Some readers might be reminded of those sweatshirts or other apparel that enumerate lighthouses. But how many wonder about the inside? (Hmm. Somehow I don’t think this is Cris Mazza’s audience.)

The novel weaves historical fiction and research with present day character development. It is a detective novel in the way that all novels are detective novels — but more so, because the story looks for answers for motivations of characters from the immediate past, the present, and one hundred years ago. I won’t tell you that they are all related.

Enjoy this book for the deep excavation of the soul it offers. Even though that seems like a perilous undertaking, know that you are safe in Mazza’s stunning prose.

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