Author: VH Leslie
Finished on: 27 December 2017
Where did I get this book: Borrowed from a friend
Talk about up my street. A gothic feminist ghost story. Recommended by a good friend whose taste I trust. And published by the brilliant Salt – the previous books I’ve read from them, Nutcase and The Many, having been two of the most impressive books I’ve read in years. It would be fair to say I picked Bodies Of Water up with high expectations.
But reading this book is a strange experience. It is all about the atmosphere and the mood, and has a dream-like quality at odds with the violence of the plot. I had to go back and check I’d remembered events right; at the end of the book you close the final page with a sense of calm and relaxation that belies the horror of what has actually happened. Such is the seductive power of Leslie’s writing that you are pulled along with the women in the story to believe extreme actions are right and natural under the circumstances.
This is a story about relationships between women, and the impact of expectations from men, women, and society as a whole, on those relationships. The tension between the person we’d like to be, the person we think we should be, and the person who’s lived through all the ambiguity and challenges of our actual life, is at the heart of the book.
Bodies Of Water is not a frightening ghost story. And this is coming from a massive wimp. The most alarming sections relate to ‘water cures’ the women are subjected to in the chapters of the book set in 1871, probably because these feel chillingly authentic. A popular Victorian form of hydrotherapy, the water cures involved inflicting various forms of what we would today probably consider torture on patients.
The treatment is administered primarily by men to women, and Leslie uses this as a lens through which we understand how female urges, whether relating to sex, altruism or just curiosity, are mistrusted and controlled. Or rather how the world attempts to control them. The truth is that, even with limited options, both Evelyn in 1871 and Kirsten in 2016 do manage to take back agency over their own lives. Their actions may not be ideal, and they’re certainly not pretty, but Leslie lulls us gently along into believing they are inevitable.
So, Salt retain their unbroken record of awesome reads. This isn’t the rollicking tale of gothic scares I was expecting; it is something much more stealthy and unsettling. But it is a beautifully written story that keeps creeping up on you, long after you have finished reading it.