Going by the dust-jacket bio for author Joshilyn Jackson (she’s a native of the romantic but vague “deep South,” a mother of two and — oh yeah — an award-winning author), unassuming is the first word brought to mind. But from the first page of Jackson’s recently-released novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Grand Central Publishing, 2008), this author reveals herself as a force to be reckoned with.
Swimming is a ghost story, a murder mystery, an examination of family dysfunction, a discussion of the third world living conditions that exist right here in the U.S., and how that form of poverty manages to touch us even in the most manicured and gated of suburban safety. It’s all of this, but with none of the self-righteous lecturing that could come from such socially significant themes. Instead, Swimming almost shrugs at its own depth and focuses, instead, on its wildly vivid characters.
Jackson creates, in polarized sisters Laurel and Thalia, such frenetic energy that the plot takes off at top speed and never slows down. Respectable good girl Laurel lives in a gated community with her inattentive husband and their teenage daughter. What she most wants (or so believes) is to forget the past. But the past continues to visit her in the forms of the clueless mother, the ghost of her dead uncle, Marty, and her loud-mouthed actress sister.
When Laurel awakens from a sleep-walking episode to find a neighborhood girl has drowned in her backyard swimming pool, events of the past race back into Laurel’s life, demanding to be resolved. And, despite an antagonistic relationship with her older sister, it’s Thalia to whom Laurel must turn if she’s to solve the mounting mysteries. Why? Because Thalia was there two decades earlier at the accidental death of Marty, the uncle who threatened to molest young Laurel.
“Daddy would have called that bullet back before the sound of it rang out.” Jackson writes. “Daddy had turned Marty over with such careful love. He’d put his hands over the hole to try to stop the blood, and with all his will, he’d tried to make his brother not be dead.”
Readers will be kept guessing up to the breathless finish. But as much as Swimming offers fleet action and colorful mayhem, it keeps careful reign on its larger mission: to present a unique insight into a forgotten part of the Southern landscape. The poorest rural regions, the trailer parks, drug addictions and dead-end lives that Laurel must ultimately face, are part of that “deep South” culture that Jackson taps.
Joshilyn Jackson reads at Malaprop’s on Saturday, May 17. The event begins at 7 p.m.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter