The Shape of Water

Anne Spollen.  The Shape of Water.  Woodbury, MN:  Flux, 2008.

Note:  Contains mature topics, including sexuality.

A former wishlist book.  See also the Enchanting YA Reviews post – this was not the first review that introduced me to The Shape of Water, but I feel it gives a strong, satisfying summary and analysis.

It’s been seven months since Magda’s mother died, and while her father seems to be rushing forward with life, Magda is slipping backward.  She’s always been uncomfortable in “standard” social situations – so much so that her mind turns people (including herself) into wild animals – but now she can barely function as a normal human being.

Not that she was completely comfortable in her mother’s world – Magda calls it “the drift,” a water-like state of mind, unorganized, unscheduled, uninhibited.  But at least her mother was there to guide her and make her feel like she belonged.

Now, lost in the drift, Magda can only think of setting fires.  And of the fish family that’s invaded her head.

Spollen creates a very dreamlike, very believable portrait of grief.  The “standard” might call it madness, but of course insanity is in the eye of the beholder.  It’s interesting to see how society defines grief – what forms are acceptable?  How long is it “supposed” to last?  What is the right way to “move on”?

And Spollen (or, rather, Magda) doesn’t just describe Magda’s thought processes – she lets us feel some of the chaos (or is it?  Eye of the beholder, after all…) ourselves.  For instance, every so often Magda’s thoughts shift to a 2nd person point of view:  “You will have to help Hannah more, Magda, especially now, your father had said.  You were looking over the edge of the Staten Island Ferry while your mother sat on a bench, alone, in the glassed-in section.

The cover itself, with its image of the sea-green girl with loose waves of hair tumbling from a mess of swirls and curls and indefinable shapes, is an accurate depiction of Magda’s inner world.  In fact, it was that surreal cover image that first drew me to the book.

Sometimes, because of its sad subject matter, the story was difficult to read.  I would get angry at the other characters for not understanding or accepting Magda’s feelings.  Her father seems to treat her grief as an obstacle to his own moving-on process, an obstacle he thinks should be easily overcome.  It’s as if he’s following a mental manual for Dealing-With-A-Grieving-Teenage-Daughter:  if Magda gets angry, use coping strategy A.  If she’s still angry…well, she shouldn’t still be angry.

Still, this is one of those books that will stay in my head for a long time – in a good way.   I loved Magda’s descriptions of her Staten Island neighborhood, and the hopeful moments that balanced out the difficult ones.  Maybe not all problems can be resolved by the story’s end, but it still left me with a hopeful feeling.

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