Galveston, Texas has always had the aura of the old wild west for me, but Elizabeth Black’s Gothic mystery – The Drowning House – reveals a sophisticated old city on a barrier island that reminded me of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The story mixes tragedy across decades, with the devastation of the Great Storm of September, 1900 as the historical backdrop.
Still despondent from the accidental death of her six-year-old daughter, photographer Clare Porterfield returns to her childhood home in Galveston to organize an exhibit from the town’s archives. Galveston has the flavor of the deep South, not only with the oppressive heat and humidity, but also with the hierarchy of old family ancestry that separates those BOI (born on the island) from the tourists and outsiders. At times, the pace of Black’s novel seems overwhelmed by the heavy atmosphere as the family secrets slowly unravel.
The Carraday family and their historic house form the base for the tangents of grief and mystery. Local lore suggests that Stella Carraday drowned in the Great Storm that swept the island at the turn of the century; her hair was found tangled in the immense chandelier in the family mansion when the water level submerged roads, houses, and any escape from an overrun causeway. Clare’s family home sits next to the Carraday house; her connections with the Carraday family, especially Patrick Carraday, her childhood soulmate and partner in juvenile pranks, hide the secrets that Black teases the reader with throughout the narrative – something sinister is lurking beneath the gracious veneer and hospitality. How did Stella really die? And why were Clare and Patrick sent away as teenagers to live apart from their families? Eventually, all is resolved in an unsurprising ending, but with a few shocking revelations along the way.
Black’s style reminded me of Carol Goodman – author of The Lake of Dead Languages and Arcadia Falls – that same dark Gothic flavor, but with a much slower pace. It took awhile to become engaged in the story; I found myself distracted by the finite descriptions of the place and the melancholy of the narrator. Luckily, the pace suited my mood, and I enjoyed the tale, while learning a little about a piece of Texas I had not encountered before.