In her sophomore stand-alone novel, TROUBLE THE WATER, Nicole Seitz takes on the grim themes of terminal illness, divorce, alcoholism, suicide and sexual abuse, but leavens them with quirky characters in a story that will engage faith fiction fans.
Like her debut novel, THE SPIRIT OF SWEETGRASS, Seitz sets TROUBLE THE WATER in the South Carolina low country --- this time, St. Anne’s Isle. The book jumps back and forth in time, mostly between June and December of 2006 and includes several first-person points of view. It’s an ambitious undertaking and can become confusing until you get used to it. But the characters are interesting enough to hook you.
Honor Maddox is an amateur painter in the grip of despair, trailing a string of broken relationships behind her. When her attempt to end her life is foiled by some Gullah nannies, she ends up bunking in a crumbling pink mansion with “Duchess,” an elderly white woman who has problems of her own. (Gullah, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to African-Americans of the low country of South Carolina and Georgia).
Duchess is a hilarious character. She has a passion for running around naked or donning only one or two pieces of apparel (a fur stole, for example). Honor wonders how she ended up with a crazy woman whose mansion is as filthy as she’s ever seen. However, Honor finds purpose in cleaning it from top to bottom, symbolic perhaps for her own need to be free of a past full of shame and disappointment. For Duchess, Honor is “like a floating lifesaver sent from above to haul my flabby white rear back up on shore again.” She has her own “dirty secrets” from the past and “stink might can be covered up, but it doesn’t ever go away unless it’s aired out proper.”
Both the Duchess and Honor are mourning their pasts in different ways; together, they help each other heal. Soon, Honor is painting up a storm and discovering her natural talent. By helping Honor, Duchess pulls herself somewhat together (she still likes running around in the buff) and begins to socialize again.
Honor’s beloved sister Alice wrecks her car, and it sets in motion a chain of events that spark a new realization of Honor’s past and the tremendous load of guilt and shame Honor carries. Reading Honor’s journals also causes Alice to face her own problems, especially an alcoholic, abusive husband, and determine what she wants to make of the rest of her life.
The frequent point of view shifts, as well as the aforementioned time jumps, are challenging for the reader. The characters are the strength of the novel, and keep things cooking. The storyline relies on the rather often-used breast cancer theme (a favorite of faith-fiction novelists) although of course, the issue of breast cancer is no less important for being used so much. I was disappointed, however, in the way Seitz tied up Duchess’s storyline. It seems contrived and less believable than the rest of the plot. And the plethora of problems --- cancer, suicide, sexual abuse, alcoholism --- seemed excessive.
However, what works well is the relationship between Dutchess and Honor, and the portrayal of how the best emotional healing sometimes comes through helping someone else. As Honor reflects, “I knew for a fact that Duchess wasn’t playing with a full deck, but this was my task…Like her or leave her.” And as Duchess says, “…When you meet a true angel, you’re never the same.”
Seitz is an excellent writer, and her portrayals of the Gullah culture in the low country of South Carolina will engage readers unfamiliar with the area. I especially enjoyed how she wove healing techniques and traditions into the narrative. Painting your house blue, for example, helps keep the “haigs” (ghosts) out of your house. Propping brooms outside your doors mean that a “hag” (an old woman who can shed her skin at night) will have to stop and count every piece of straw before coming inside. Otherwise, a hag might ride on someone’s chest all night “till they can’t breathe anymore.”
It’s these sort of fascinating tidbits that enrich the story, and make TROUBLE THE WATER an interesting read.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on March 11, 2008