One fascinating aspect of our literary moment is the way contemporary novels seek to recycle the energies of the form during its 19th- and early 20th-century heyday. Take Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, published in 2015, which borrows from Dickens, particularly his masterpiece Great Expectations, as a way of wrenching the earlier figure’s ambition and stereoscopic social view into the digital present.
Likewise, one of the most successful literary crossover fictions of recent years was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a novel that for all its late American empire glitter is a narrative driven by the crypto-Edwardian engine of Evelyn Waugh’s overripe classic Brideshead Revisited. And now we have Dark Water, a superbly entertaining historical novel that feeds deeply upon the genius of Herman Melville.
The opening chapters are set in 1833 on the USS Orbis, which is travelling up the coast of Peru. We see the ship, a miniature world in itself, through the eyes of a young, callow, desperately seasick assistant surgeon named Hiram Carver. He has gone to sea as a means of shaking off both his distinguished Boston surname and the shadow of his coldly eminent physician father. That he is no sailor is immediately clear; that he is different from his fellow shipmates in some other way – what first looks like sexual nonconformity soon shades into something weirder, more metaphysical – is only glancingly explored.
The main focus of Hiram’s attention is William Borden, a name that carries the associative charge of being shared by a notorious axe murderer. He is the ship’s darling and the legendary survivor of a mutiny on a boat called the Providence, which took place years before. For Carver, Borden is not only physically beautiful – he has the command of a natural aristocrat:
That leonine face was grooved from mouth to chin with the marks of an entrenched sadness. He seldom smiled, and his smile, when it came, was utterly startling, like the unlooked-for dazzle of sun on tar. I’ve never before or since encountered such an effect of calm and tragic authority in any other human being.
He is a grown-up version of Melville’s foundling, Billy Budd, in other words. In Melville’s final, posthumously published novella the titular character is found guilty of murder and is hanged, though the golden boy is really guilty only of inciting envy in the ship’s master-at-arms. In Lowry’s hands a similar dynamic is shifted slightly in combination. Envy inspires misdemeanour, which is turned into a crime by the foolish self-aggrandisement of a junior officer. Obliged into complicity with the barbaric shipboard justice that follows, the impeccably measured Borden cracks and attacks the responsible officer. He tears the man’s neck and face half off with his teeth.
It is this irruption of violence that sets the larger machinery of the novel in motion. In the weeks that follow, Carver is obliged to share Borden’s shipboard incarceration. He tends to the man during a period of feverish illness until he is felled by the same malady. It is as though the miasma that surrounds Borden has infected Carver, too. On their return to dry land, Carver leaves the navy in relief and returns home to convalesce. Borden, it is determined, is insane.
It is a tribute to Lowry’s narrative talents that this gripping sequence turns out to be just a small plate before the feast proper. What she has established is an umbilical connection between the two men, and it is this link that she explores across the epic expanse of the remaining 400 pages. Carver, on recovering, obsessed with the “dark water” that ran beneath his friend’s surface mental state, takes a job at a nearby asylum – a grand estate refitted for the mad flotsam of the Yankee gentry. And it’s from here that Borden is soon released by the agency of his young fiancée, Ruth Macy: an attractive, wealthy and forthright Quaker from Nantucket Island.
The correspondence that follows between Carver, the wannabe healer, and the would-be wife of the supposed lunatic Borden is cunningly designed to expand the reader’s sense of Borden’s past. Ruth shares the court transcripts from the naval trial that prosecuted the mutineers of the Providence (in absentia: they disappeared with the ship and were never found), and these both reveal the resourcefulness of Borden the young sailor in guiding a tiny craft with a starving crew across open seas to the safety of the Chilean coast, while offering disquieting information about how those same events have shaped Borden into the present.
The proto-analytic encounter that Lowry embarks upon is a drama of intellect quite as exciting as the action of the opening chapters. There is the thrill of watching Carver grope towards some therapeutic toolkit that might unlock his friend’s memory – as well as his appetite, since Borden refuses all food but bread and milk – and the shock encounter with yet another of Melville’s works, in this instance his short story, “Bartelby, the Scrivener”, which concerns the descent of a Manhattan lawyers’ clerk into silence and a form of madness. Lowry distils some of the fraternal melancholy of that earlier work – its pondering of the subterranean places into which the human spirit may sink – to add some philosophic kick to the more generically obedient tale she relates.
There are a series of cascading reveals and reversals in the second half of the novel that make it hard to outline without spoiling an ever-tightening plot mechanism. What we do come to understand is that neither man is who we assumed him to be. Their final confrontation, undertaken back on sea, rocks furiously on the instability of memory and a breakdown of their formerly fixed characters. The final result is a superior thriller, cleverly conceived and elegantly written, lifted out of its airport bookshop shelf by a liberal sprinkling of writer’s dust from a dead genius who sang of men and boats and the whalers of Nantucket – and whose greatest work shares the source material for the crime at this novel’s heart. AF
Riverrun, 480pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Elizabeth Lowry, Dark Water". Subscribe here.