Book Review: The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon

The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon is a haunting, twisty, and compulsively readable modern-day ghost story about a woman who returns to the old family home after her sister mysteriously drowns in its swimming pool—but she’s not the pool’s only victim.

Social worker Jax has learned to ignore her sister when she’s in the grip of a manic episode. After a lifetime of being dragged down by Lexie’s destructive mental illness, she’s been forced to draw hard, uncrossable lines between them. When she finds nine increasingly frantic messages on her answering machine, Jax assumes Lexie has simply gone off her medication again.

But within hours, Lexie is dead, drowned in the peculiar spring-fed pool at their grandmother’s house, and Jax is forced to face old family secrets as she dives into the truth behind her sister’s death. The truth behind the seemingly miraculous—or cursed—springs.

I picked up one of Lexie’s journal entries:

 

May 13

Deduction.

Reduction.

Redaction.

How much has been redacted from the carefully curated version of our story?

The story of we. The story of us. The story of THIS PLACE! The story of THE SPRINGS!

GRAM KNEW! Gram knew the truth and said nothing.

 

Another paper held all of the details Lexie had been able to find out about Rita’s drowning.

 

Facts I know about Rita’s death:

Rita was 7 years old.

Mom was 10. Diane was 13.

Gram found Rita FLOATING facedown in the pool that morning. Rita was wearing her nightgown.

Gram, Mom, Diane, and Rita and Great-Grandma were all at home. They’d had dinner the night before—beef stew, had watched some TV and gone to bed. No one heard or saw anything. At some point in the night or early morning, Rita must have gotten out of bed and gone down to the pool. Gram’s screams woke Mom and Diane the next morning. They ran down to see what was the matter. There was Gram with Rita in her arms, pulled from the pool, soaking wet.

I found the death certificate.

Cause of death: ACCIDENTAL DROWNING.

Like it was really that simple.

Like that was really what happened.

In a parallel story unfolding 90 years earlier, Ethel Monroe is a newlywed desperate for a child. When her husband hears about the rejuvenating power of the Brandenburg Springs, she’s eager to visit, hoping the water will cure her infertility.

At the brand new, gorgeous, sophisticated Brandenburg Springs Hotel, Ethel experiences a powerful sense of déjà vu—a sense of belonging, as if she’s come home after a long journey. Eliza, the glamorous wife of the hotel’s owner, quickly befriends Ethel and confides in her that the springs don’t just heal the sick and injured, they grant wishes too. So Ethel begs for her heart’s desire, unaware of what it may cost her.

Dearest Ethel,

 

Since poor Martha’s death, I have been very busy indeed. I have been engaged in secret research. I have not told Benson or anyone else what I have learned. You are the first.

 

I have contacted everyone I’ve been able to find who has experienced a “miracle” at the springs. And what I’ve learned is very troubling indeed.

 

The musician I told you about who became an overnight sensation—his oldest son was hit by a streetcar and killed three weeks after his record hit the top of the charts. The woman whose asthma was cured—her husband took ill with consumption. Little Charles Woodcock is now walking, while his sister has been laid to rest.

 

The old folks in town, they know the truth. They say the springs give miracles, but they always take something in return.

 

The springs exact a price equal to what was given.

 

There is one more thing I must tell you, though I am sure you will think me quite mad.

 

I have seen little Martha. I went to the pool at night, and she was there, waiting for me. “Come swimming with me,” she said. And oh, Ethel, I ran from her then. I ran and have not been back, but I know she’s there still, waiting.

 

Yours,

Eliza Harding

In a gripping dual narrative that sways between the past and the present, Jennifer McMahon delivers another chilling novel that’s equal parts campfire ghost story and dark fairy tale. At the heart of The Drowning Kind is one question: what are you willing to sacrifice to have what you truly desire?

Because, as is so often the case with fairy tales, magic always comes with a price.

McMahon’s prose positively drips with atmosphere; you can almost smell the sulfur of the springs and feel the puddles on the floor. Her narrators, Jax and Ethel, are vastly different women living in vastly different worlds; McMahon tells their stories with distinctive, separate tones that feel authentic to each time period and steadily build each narrative until their full connection becomes obvious.

Of the two tales, Jax’s feels more pressing and vibrant thanks to the emotional urgency McMahon pours into her pages. Jax wants answers. An explanation. To discover the truth behind why her sister—an accomplished swimmer—drowned. Why their aunt drowned in the pool as a young girl, like so many others over the decades. And we want her to find those answers. Are the springs more miracle or curse? Is there truly a supernatural force at work here?

The Drowning Kind is a story unafraid of peering into black, seemingly endless depths. McMahon does a masterful job of layering unsettling details upon uneasy tension, building a harrowing mystery rife with hard questions and difficult choices. Loss, guilt, desperation, mental illness, familial strife, and devil’s bargains permeate everything until we feel as though we’re being dragged under the cold water ourselves. This is no light or cozy read, so be prepared to face some serious darkness here.

But for all of its heavy subject matter, this is still an extremely compelling piece of fiction. McMahon really knows how to pull readers in and make us devour her chapters at a rapid clip, keeping us intrigued by bouncing from one timeline to the other. This is one that’s sure to keep you up into the small hours, determined to see the story through to the (perhaps) bitter end. Whether you’re a fan of ghost stories or historical fiction, sister-focused personal drama or American folklore, The Drowning Kind will not disappoint.

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