The Waters and the Wild

Written by DeSales Harrison

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Waters and the Wild
RRP: £12.99 / £14.99
Released: May 5, 2018
Pbk / Hbk

This is a novel of contradictions and mistaken identities.

Father Nelson Spurling of the Church of the Incarnation in New York, is a man of deep faith who questions everything. In the Lady Chapel he has established a sanctuary for the homeless: souls so wretched, so stinking filthy, that they are unwelcome at licensed refuges. Nelson is, in retrospect and with objectivity, one who, although racked with torment himself, is the only person in this convoluted tale that comes close to leading a life of fulfilment. Others are searching, some desperately: for alleviation of suffering, for their origins, for absolution, for revenge. Drugs, disease, and an exquisite form of abuse feature in their lives while guilt is the fuel that drives the juggernaut of a plot.

The story starts with Nelson receiving a package which he is asked to hold in trust for a Miss Clementine Abend. The contents form a kind of manuscript: the “testament” of one, Daniel Abend, a psychoanalyst and confessed author of a narrative that leaps effortlessly back and forth through time and space, from affluent New York to Paris and Burgundy. It tells of Daniel’s meeting with the bewitching student, Miriam, in Paris, of their passionate love affair that ends disastrously on his rejecting the ultimate commitment that would involve religious conversion and marriage. There is some deliberate confusion here on the part of the author, DeSales, enmeshing both Daniel and the reader, the observed outcome being Miriam’s death and Daniel’s return to New York, the legal guardian of a new baby and carrying a load of guilt that is to haunt him throughout the next eighteen years.

Initially, as the baby develops into an enchanting little girl, the bond between the infant Clementine and Daniel is so strong that she refers to him as her “ papa” and her “mommy” but as she grows -- and she’s a feisty child -- Daniel has problems in evading her increasingly piercing questions concerning her mother. For the official account of her passing was suicide by drowning but Daniel, holding himself responsible, has invented a careful narrative of her death in childbirth. Now he has to dig a deeper hole as Clementine demands information on her maternal antecedents, notably her grandparents. Then she disappears.

Meanwhile at intervals Daniel has been receiving photographs and snippets of poems relating to the dead Miriam. One of his patients drowns in her bath and a photo is sent to him, from the same source as the others, that could only have been taken by someone who killed her.

A man who aims to heal stricken minds, who started out neurotic himself, progresses inexorably towards madness. And the story – the long ravelled story – itself seems to be going off the rails until, not far from the end, the “testament” is delivered to the intended recipient and Father Spurling hears more than one confession.

It does end well and without sentimentality. It is surprising that a reader can stay so long with more than one tormented soul, can view murder employed as a weapon with equanimity; that graphic sex, once condemned as pornography, can be accepted as indicative of innocent pleasure. It is remarkable that there comes a point where nothing matters, even that there should be no form of justice for a killer, that there is indeed no justice.

Love is the final solution and this is a story told with love by an articulate poet.

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