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The Drowning House
Cover of The Drowning House
The Drowning House
A Novel
A gripping suspense story about a woman who returns to Galveston, Texas after a personal tragedy and is irresistibly drawn into the insular world she's struggled to leave.

Photographer Clare Porterfield's once-happy marriage is coming apart, unraveling under the strain of a family tragedy. When she receives an invitation to direct an exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she jumps at the chance to escape her grief and reconnect with the island she hasn't seen for ten years. There Clare will have the time and space to search for answers about her troubled past and her family's complicated relationship with the wealthy and influential Carraday family.
Soon she finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery involving Stella Carraday. Local legend has it that Stella drowned in her family's house during the Great Hurricane of 1900, hanged by her long hair from the drawing room chandelier. Could Stella have been saved? What is the true nature of Clare's family's involvement? The questions grow like the wildflower vines that climb up the walls and fences of the island. And the closer Clare gets to the answers, the darker and more disturbing the truth becomes.
Steeped in the rich local history of Galveston, The Drowning House portrays two families, inextricably linked by tragedy and time.
"The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black's suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus." —John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
A gripping suspense story about a woman who returns to Galveston, Texas after a personal tragedy and is irresistibly drawn into the insular world she's struggled to leave.

Photographer Clare Porterfield's once-happy marriage is coming apart, unraveling under the strain of a family tragedy. When she receives an invitation to direct an exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she jumps at the chance to escape her grief and reconnect with the island she hasn't seen for ten years. There Clare will have the time and space to search for answers about her troubled past and her family's complicated relationship with the wealthy and influential Carraday family.
Soon she finds herself drawn into a century-old mystery involving Stella Carraday. Local legend has it that Stella drowned in her family's house during the Great Hurricane of 1900, hanged by her long hair from the drawing room chandelier. Could Stella have been saved? What is the true nature of Clare's family's involvement? The questions grow like the wildflower vines that climb up the walls and fences of the island. And the closer Clare gets to the answers, the darker and more disturbing the truth becomes.
Steeped in the rich local history of Galveston, The Drowning House portrays two families, inextricably linked by tragedy and time.
"The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black's suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus." —John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1

    If there was a sign, I missed it. But I knew I was in Texas when I swerved to avoid a shape by the side of the road. It must have been around six in the morning, the first thin light just visible through the pines, when I crossed over the state line.

    I stopped and backed up to confirm that the shape was a chest of drawers. Or rather the skeleton of one, since the drawers them­selves were gone and the empty spaces where they should have been gaped open. I'd lived away long enough to find the sight incongruous. But it came back to me all at once, the things I'd seen abandoned at the side of the road in Texas. Not just on rural blacktops but along the busiest superhighways--gut-ripped mattresses, clothing, suitcases, and once, a velvet rocking chair.

    It was what you might expect in a country at war--personal belongings strewn along the side of the road, as though their owners' lives had exploded, sending them flying. Or on the frontier, when travelers came this way as a last resort. In the days when "Gone to Texas" meant you were desperate.

    It was May 1990, and still cool enough at night to leave the car windows open. I heard a bobwhite whistle, and I whistled back, but the only response was a quick flurry of wings. Bobwhites have different calls--for assembly, for food sharing, calls of alarm and flight. Probably I had said the wrong thing.

    I had been driving for several days. Early on, I'd left the route Michael had drawn for me on the map. It was a route as unlikely as the map itself, where the entire continent was an uninterrupted expanse of green. As I drove up the ramp onto my first stretch of freeway, the map blew into the backseat, and I let it lie there.

    Before I left, Michael and I had argued. He couldn't get away, he had a case coming up for trial. "I'll put you on a plane if you want," he said.

    "You'll put me?"

    "Clare, it's just a phrase."

    "You know I can't fly."

    We'd had the same exchange before. What usually happened next was that Michael would shrug and go back to his desk, with its shifting piles of papers and stacks of books on torts and civil procedure, and I would wander the apartment, picking things up and replacing them like someone seeing it all for the first time.

    Instead I said, "I'll drive." Saying it made it seem like something I could do.

    "You're going to drive to Texas from D.C.? By yourself?" Now I had his full attention. "You haven't driven anywhere in months."

    I had tried. I'd gone out to the garage, keys in hand. I'd seen through the window Bailey's blue parka lying on the backseat, one arm flung out in a gesture so vividly like her that for a moment I could almost believe she was alive. Then the truth washed over me. Bright spots swam up from the concrete floor and my legs began to shake. I went back into the house.

    Michael had even suggested selling the station wagon, but I'd resisted.

    "Well." Michael is tall, and when he concentrates, he looks down and frowns. I had once found it attractive, the way he would focus his energy on a problem only to forget it completely a moment later, raising his head and gazing out again at his own serene world. That was before I'd ever supposed I could be the problem. "If it will make you happy."

    I didn't tell him that happiness had always seemed to me to descend suddenly, when you least expected it, like a sun shower. That often it wasn't until much later you could look back and say, then, on that ordinary morning, with a car full of six-year-olds squirming and kicking, as the station wagon flashed through the dappled light of the tree-lined streets, then I was truly happy.

    "Michael, don't," I...

About the Author-
  • ELIZABETH BLACK has published poetry in Kansas Quarterly, Karamu, and Southern Humanities Review. The Drowning House is her first novel.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 8, 2012
    Galveston, Tex., a place indelibly marked by the hurricane of 1900, which took well over 6,000 lives, is the setting for Black’s fine debut. In present day, after the death of her six-year-old daughter and the collapse of her marriage, a broken Clare Porterfield returns to her island hometown after a decade away. She’s been invited to choose material for a photo exhibition funded by the prominent Carraday family, whose patriarch, the Jay Gatsbyesque Will, has deep ties to Clare’s mother, Eleanor. As children, Will’s son, Patrick, and Clare were inseparable, their youthful exploits in and around the Porterfield house gradually tending toward the illegal, but a tragedy involving Patrick sent Clare away from home. Although Clare returns to look at photos of the island’s history, what she really seeks is what remains of her wounded self. As Clare searches for the elusive Patrick, the true object of her desire, island characters divulge truths to which she was never privy. As Galveston’s past comes to light, so, too, does Clare’s—and it’s so full of woe it nearly drowns the story. Nevertheless, Black mythologizes this landscape, evoking its essence and that of its inhabitants, creating a novel that is far more than the sum of its parts. Agent: Mollie Glick, Foundry Literary + Media.

  • Kirkus

    November 1, 2012
    In this contemporary Southern gothic, a young artist returns home to Galveston, Texas, and uncovers a century's worth of sordid secrets. Clare hasn't been back to Galveston since she was sent away at 14 to live with her grandmother. Now married (though she knows that won't last long) and mourning the accidental death of her daughter, Clare is on the island to organize a photo exhibit for the historical society. But the novel, like Clare, is consumed with the past. Growing up on Galveston, an old pirate island with a reputation for dangerous charm, Clare lived in the historic Porterfield House, lovingly maintained by her unlovable father. In front of this house sits the Carraday Mansion, still the residence of the powerful Carraday family. Patriarch Will Carraday gave Clare her first camera as a child and is sponsoring the exhibition, asking Clare to rummage through the family's personal archive. Clare splits her time between searching for Patrick Carraday, Will's son and once upon a time the person who made her world, and the truth about Stella Carraday, the mysterious ancestor who allegedly died during the great flood, found naked and hanging from the chandelier. The truth about Patrick proves more elusive. As children and teenagers, they were inseparable, she a willing accomplice to all of his delinquent inclinations. But even the heir to the Carraday fortune can't overcome some scandals, and after a suspicious fire kills a girl, Clare is sent to the Midwest and Patrick to Europe. Clare has nothing but questions: Why is Patrick avoiding her? How long have her mother and the married Will been having an affair? What really happened to Stella? For someone who prefers the distance of a camera to a conversation, Galveston may well keep her secrets. But then the atmospheric novel, framed by Clare's reticence, explodes in a thunderclap that exposes all the old wounds: incest, murder and the secret of Clare's paternity. Black's tempered pace and moody vulnerability creates a rich debut: both sensitive and sensational.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2012

    Photographer Clare Porterfield returns to her hometown of Galveston, TX, after a number of years. Her marriage crumbling in the wake of her daughter's tragic death, Clare is seeking something she is unable to define. She finds herself in thrall to wealthy banker Will Carraday, whose longtime impact on her own family she's just beginning to realize, while trying to find resolution with Will's son Patrick, who was involved in an incident when they were teens that led to her leaving Galveston. VERDICT While Black's depiction of the culture and history of Galveston can come only from deep personal knowledge, the novel's structure is somewhat problematic; the main story thread is set in 1990 for no apparent reason, with no real sense or flavor of the time period. This reviewer guessed the book's big secret a full 100 pages earlier than Clare did, and thus was impatient with her until she figured it out. And first-time novelist Black falls victim to a rookie mistake, imposing an abrupt, unnecessary, somewhat implausible dramatic ending.--Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    December 1, 2012
    Black's first novel is an atmospheric exploration of the island of Galveston, Texas, and the intertwined histories of two families who reside there. After the death of her daughter, grief-stricken photographer Clare Porterfield returns home to Galveston to construct an exhibit of historic photographs. Prepared to lose herself in the project, Clare instead finds herself drawn into the complicated relationship her family has with the Carradays. She learns patriarch Will has been having a decades-long affair with her mother, Eleanor, while Clare's own desire to seek out Will's son, Patrick, her childhood companion and crush, is thwarted at every turn. Clare is soon absorbed in a century-old mystery as she tries to piece together the fate of Stella Carraday, who supposedly perished in the hurricane that struck the island in 1900. As she uncovers the secret of Stella's fate, she is forced to confront truths about her own past as well as her grief over her daughter's death. A slow burn that rewards the reader with several shocking reveals and twists toward the end.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • John Berendt, New York Times bestselling author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

    "The Drowning House marks the emergence of an impressive new literary voice. Elizabeth Black's suspenseful inquiry into dark family secrets is enriched by a remarkable succession of images, often minutely observed, that bring characters, setting, and story sharply into focus."

  • The New York Times Book Review "[Black] possesses elegant descriptive powers ... The honky-tonk allure of Glaveson's Strand district, in particular, comes alive in all its touched-up splendor."
  • Bookpage "A spellbinding debut novel, a story of secrets, loss and the redemptive power of truth ... Black's luxurious prose makes Galveston into a dark, fading fairy-tale world, and her descriptions of Clare's internal strife reveal a keen insight into the human condition that eludes many more seasoned novelists. A page-turning chronicle of grief and memory, The Drowning House is a remarkable blend of human drama and satisfyingly Southern Gothic mystery, propelled by Black's lyrical, haunting narration."
  • Publishers Weekly, starred review "A fine debut ... Black mythologizes this landscape, evoking its essence and that of its inhabitants, creating a novel that is far more than the sum of its parts."
  • The Dallas Morning News "Engrossing ... A multigenerational, thrillingly evocative and witty novel ... Black excels at summoning the unique culture of Galveston, its tragic past and scruffy present."
  • Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star "Black does an excellent job of luring the reader on with hints here and little bits of information there ... An engrossing story of perception and context, with an appealing heroine and a fascinating setting."
  • Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog "Prepare to be lost in Elizabeth Black's Galveston. Strange, mysterious, and utterly riveting, The Drowning House is a captivating mystery as well as a beautifully realized story about grief that skillfully evokes the heat, humidity, and languid desire that pervade Gulf Coast life."
  • Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You "As dark and gleaming as a ruby, Elizabeth Black's suspenseful debut limns the slippery nature of truth surrounding a shocking tragedy, with language so exquisite you'll be underlining phrases."
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