- Paperback: 284 pages
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (3 July 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1534627243
- ISBN-13: 978-1534627246
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.8 x 21.6 cm
- Average Customer Review: 15 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 774,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Taking In Water Paperback – 3 Jul 2016
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About the Author
Pamela Johnson has published two previous novels, plus short stories, poems, non-fiction and journalism. She's a tutor on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London. She previously worked as an independent critic, curator and lecturer on contemporary visual art. Her essays, articles and reviews on contemporary visual art and craft have appeared in journals, broadsheets and gallery publications. She's curated national touring exhibitions and reviewed for BBC Radio. Now, she's working on her fourth novel and a collection of poems, and runs the literary website, Words Unlimited, which has an archive of her many interviews with authors
Top customer reviews
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Pamela Johnson's chronicle takes us into the world of Lydia/Layla, an artist living in a remote house on top of a crumbling cliff in Yorkshire. Set in 2002, we learn that Lydia now spends her days collecting the detritus thrown up by the sea to make art works which explore her own difficult past. As the narrative unfolds, we realise that as a young child she suffered the deaths of her parents and grandmother in the terrifying storm of 1953 when her family was staying one of the worst affected areas in Norfolk. She also has had to cope with becoming the silent icon of a 1960s pop art installation when she was called Layla and, among other things, presented by her boyfriend, Luc, as lying naked on a bed of sea-salt. The ensuing art installation that Luc created, Taking in Water, became a cult classic, made more significant and poignant after Luc's suicide several years later. For reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, Layla/Lydia suffered a major breakdown after Luc's death. Some years after this, her adoptive parent's hotel business, The Marine, collapsed both literally and metaphorically when it became a victim of coastal erosion.
Woven in and out of Lydia's story are third person accounts of two younger men: Martin and Stephen. Stephen is a junior land surveyor, who takes pity on Lydia because his boss is attempting to bully her into abandoning her home, trying to make her believe that it too, like The Marine, will fall victim to coastal erosion. In stark contrast to the matter-of-fact Stephen, Martin is a dreamy academic researching Taking in Water. He is staying in the area so that he can look after his ailing mother, Eileen. The novel opens with Martin recognizing Layla on a remote Yorkshire beach; it is Martin’s quest to unearth Lydia’s story which gives the narrative its structural “trunk”, from which Johnson is able to grow many branches and off-shoots.
The novel is a serious, ambitious work of art in itself. Johnson is a very skilful writer. I was initially drawn in by her wonderful descriptions of the sea and the coast, written in precise, sensual prose. She has a genuine mastery of characterisation and narrative structure; the novel builds with increasing suspense to a shocking conclusion -- a revelation from Lydia's past -- which is both surprising but also makes perfect sense. Taking in Water has a musical quality with Johnson revisiting various motifs again and again but each time they surface, new and contrasting light is shed upon them. 9/11, coastal erosion, the meaning of modern art, death, storms, the clash of cultures, the innocence of children are explored repeatedly, but never in a 'heavy' way; Johnson keeps the reader turning the pages because the book builds up a heady momentum. I read it in less than a week, and that was while I was very busy at work as well!
Johnson's work shares some similarities with Helen Dunmore and Rose Tremain's contemporary novels; these are writers who have narrative verve but also a desire to dig out the really important issues in modern life. But in many ways, for all its focus upon English issues, this is not a polite English novel: it has huge ambitions and uses the third person to range across a vast variety of topics. It is not frightened to tackle the critical issues facing us today. In this sense, I was reminded of the middle period Saul Bellow – Herzog, Humbodt’s Gift, Seize the Day – in the way that Johnson uses third person and is utterly unafraid to bring in cosmic, global topics into a small domestic drama. She shares with him a confident bravura in her prose, a desire to intertwine the sensual and the cerebral, and a commitment to escape from the shackles of “inoffensive” writing. I also found it illuminating to consider their manifest differences. Where Bellow is sexist, Johnson is feminist, where Bellow is bellicose, Johnson contests the aggressiveness of patriarchy, where Bellow is often mean in his representation of people, Johnson shows generosity of spirit.
The wild landscape of the North Sea coastline is beautifully evoked, and we are reminded of nature's power to both destroy and to heal. As we are of the capacity art can have to heal.
It's a broad sweep of a novel, which encompasses many interesting themes including the London and New York art worlds of the 60s, parent (particularly mother) child relationships, natural and man-made disasters, the meaning of home. But all executed with a lightness of touch and with the various strands effortlessly woven together.
One strand I very much enjoyed was the relationship between Martin and his anxious mother, Eileen. It was both moving but also very funny and I laughed out loud several times.
The story is set in the long aftermath of the UK’s 1953 floods, peacetime’s worst but forgotten disaster. Lydia, who was orphaned by the storm but survived, is now adult but racked with guilt, unable to face her past. An artist—or is she a nutter, as some locals say?—she returns to the beach every day to search for battered reminders of her lost childhood. When Martin, a researcher, stumbles on Lydia and begins to ask her about the work she created years before, more than art history starts coming to light.
Johnson’s a poet, as the precision of the writing shows—but she’s also a fine comic writer. The character of Martin’s tiresome mother Eileen and her plaintive voice were a repeated source of amusement. I looked forward to her every background appearance.
This book is beautifully written - the characters are complex, the plot is well-developed and gripping, and the theme of water (in many forms) runs throughout, tying the whole thing together. An excellent read - I'd highly recommend this book.
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