They Drown Our Daughters by Katrina Monroe

If you like feminist, multi-generational sagas of mothers and daughters struggling to love and trust each other across an abyss of misunderstandings and generational trauma — with a hint of ghost story mixed in for the bargain, you should try reading They Drown Our Daughters by Katrina Monroe.

It starts with Regina in 1881, a woman scorned, and a terrible accident in the dead of night. Then, in the present, we meet Meredith, a woman stinging from the split from her wife, and her young daughter Alice. With the end of her relationship Meredith has been drawn irresistibly back to her childhood home and to her troubled, distant mother Judith, who is now forgetful and more convinced than ever that evil is waiting in the ocean for them. As the little family struggles against what seems like their inevitable doom, the reader meets their ancestors: Grace, who can’t give up hope that her mother Regina will return; Beth, crushed by depression and grief, even in pregnancy; Diana, who wishes it would all just go away; and finally Judith as she was, a child desperate to understand all the heartbreak around her. And there’s another woman – a mysterious red-haired girl who appears around every corner as disaster after disaster rocks Meredith’s conviction that the curse isn’t real. Finally, at the end of her rope, Meredith has had enough and declares that one way or another, the curse ends with her – but so have all the women before her…

For the most part, this is a deeply unhappy book, and that can be very hard to read. But the determination of women is always inspiring, and the author is kind enough to give a ray of hope at the end. The book it most reminded me of is The Mermaid’s Daughter by Ann Claycomb (a superb retelling of The Little Mermaid story featuring the power of music) with its themes of mothers and daughters, a curse passed down the line, and the irresistible call of the ocean. In this case, however, it’s more of a ghost story with a hint of witches thrown in. The multiple time jumps add a sense of history and fate to the central conflict of Meredith vs. the curse, and honestly the chance to meet so many women that are all distinct and different and complicated, and deal with the curse in their own ways, is fascinating to read and shows the author’s skill.

That said, while the characters are vivid and realistic, they’re not necessarily your favorite people. Meredith for instance, with whom we spend the most time, is stubborn, close-minded, and hopelessly out of her depth in a supernatural conflict, not to mention a conflicted parent. Even Judith, who we root for as someone fighting the curse, is cold and distant to her daughter and generally does poorly in her personal relationships – which for me at least was not endearing to read. But again, this is partly the mark of a skilled writer showing that people are not always heroic or villainous but shades of gray; the inclusion of a lesbian main character in a nuanced and complicated family relationship is also refreshing to see.

Don’t miss They Drown Our Daughters for a complicated family saga, a slow-burning horror story, and a meditation on home and belonging.

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