Girl Underwater makes you wish you had nothing else to do in your day but binge read. The way it unfolds, and the taut prose, are riveting. Artfully, Claire Kells delivers a message about true courage and the raw instinct for survival that is as much about hope and trust as monumental catastrophe and despair. At under 300 pages, it’s stirring writing for any author, let alone one’s debut.
The novel’s timing is eerily uncanny given the rash of horrific plane crashes of late. I’m not giving anything away here since by page 8 the air tragedy has already been set in motion. Later we learn 204 innocents perished, someplace in/by a Colorado Rocky mountain lake, “the kind of wilderness no one comes to visit, the kind of lake no one ever swims in.” Yet, there are a few survivors and two are elite swimmers.
Colin Shea and Avery Delacorte are swim teammates at a Northern California college, flying home on Thanksgiving break, which means the wilderness lake is frigid. But it’s strewn with the wreckage of the plane, pieces of fuselage and contents that might help them survive. That taunting, haunting lake and their exceptional swimming skills and endurance are there for a purpose.
It’s with that same purposefulness, more like fate, that as soon as Colin boards the airplane he changed his seat to sit beside Avery. They weren’t close friends, but that simple act belies the dramatic changes their relationship will undergo in the face of life-and-death decisions. (“The façade he used to navigate our stilted interactions has been stripped away.”) Colin’s proximity to Avery is an incredulous stroke of good fortune, which is not lost on Avery who witnesses his acute sensitivities to her needs and to those of the people surrounding them over his own – his split-second reactions, selflessness, bravery, and calmness – which kick into high gear before others seem to realize what’s happening. We’re told there’s “nothing embellished” about Colin (he has a “strange sense of groundedness”). His is a tender way of getting straight to the point that’s honest and strong, much like the author’s prose. She does not waste words, so the ones she’s chosen have a sureness and eloquence that is point-blank.
Avery, rather than Colin, is the right choice for narrator because she has insecurities whereas he possesses a “smooth, languid magnificence that so few creatures can claim.” Her recounting moves back and forth in time in chapters that immerse us in dramatic scenes of their fight to stay alive; their histories; and the aftermath, centered on Avery’s coming-to-terms with being one of the lone survivors. Life for her is now conceived of as Before and After: before the crash and afterwards. Before sheds light on who Avery and Colin were when disaster struck, to render this survival story – theirs and the three young, trusting boys they heroically saved – believable.
Swimming – Avery’s and Colin’s athleticism and discipline – are key to the novel’s premise. Colin, a junior, is even “better than Michael Phelps” in the pool, with his “rippling cords of muscles in his forearms and shoulders. His jaw is locked, his expression neutral. It’s no wonder he dominates so completely in the pool.” He transfers that power, energy, laser focus in the crucial moments of crisis and for days after. His “massive, warm, life-saving hands” perform like a well-oiled machine, “carrying loads that would pose a challenge to three or four men put together.” Equally important is that he’s someone who “doesn’t just keep his cool, he creates it,” with “teasing smiles that could thaw a glacier.” His profound sense of “hope without making empty promises,” beyond that which the rest of us would deem rational, is a gift for Avery, the three boys, and us. All these marvelous traits are provocatively enhanced by his sweet shyness, “fierce loyalty,” and eyes that are “dark, tempestuous, gray-blue, intense.” In short, Colin possesses a charismatic, complex, almost indescribable combination of the right stuff.
So does Avery, but she doesn’t think so. Despite her talents, strengths, and natural beauty (hair like “fairy dust” and “spectral green eyes”), she walks around feeling “borderline” – wanting to be “normal meant more to me than being me.” Avery is passionate about distance swimming, the 1500 (“the “closest thing swimming has to a mile. A mile to find a rhythm, to become one with the water”), but the coach recruited her for middle distance so she’ll “go where I’m needed.” Her father, a no-nonsense physician, drilled her in fending for herself. One lesson he taught her is that “people die because they panic,” a skill she, and we, get to see up close really matters. Amidst incredible perils, her father’s wisdom buoys her: “I want to cry but my father would have forbidden it.”
The airplane crash scenes are action-packed. But it’s the psychological action of this tiny band of clinging-to-life survivors, and Avery’s emotional voice that grips us.
Avery and Colin both grew up in Boston, but different worlds: Colin from proud, working class Dorchester, and Avery, upscale Brookline. Of Avery’s three brothers, it’s Edward, a professional baseball player earning $6.4 million who surfaces because he wants to give all that up after his sister’s accident. Hooray for a character who reminds us that “money isn’t everything.” Colin’s father is a roofer, so Colin knows something about building protective structures. As the oldest of three younger sisters and a dear Mom, the role of protector comes second-nature.
The prose is evocative whether describing the strokes and lure of swimming (the college natatorium is a “transparent cathedral”); the relaxed California culture of “hugs and first names” versus the reserved “handshakes and Mr. and Mrs. of Boston;” and the torment of Avery’s recovery process in dealing with survivor’s guilt, the intrusiveness of the media, nightmares, and paralyzing new fears.
One disquietude we can relate to is Avery’s conflicted affections and allegiance. When she stepped onto that fateful plane her heart was attached to a happy-go-lucky boyfriend, Kahale, Hawaiian, “Lee to mainlanders,” who we see genuinely loves her. But after you’ve been through what Avery and Colin have endured – events depicted and others we can only imagine – Avery is rightfully torn about her feelings toward Colin. After: she feels “I’ve known him all my life.”
You’d think the relationship angst of “interpreting the afterglow of tragic events as the real thing” would be easy compared to surviving a plane crash lost thousands of feet above civilization, but it’s not. Avery’s inner struggles are like the advice given to beginner swimmers: “there comes a moment of sudden, breathtaking awe – the moment they learn to trust it. Not just the water but themselves.” Avery must learn to trust herself.
There are real-life Colins and Averys out there, private heroes whose heroism comes from someplace deep within their souls. Since they’re not seeking attention and glory, we need a novelist like Claire Kells to make them real for us, inspiring us to dig deeper than we thought possible.