Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson

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Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A reclusive artist with a tragic history has to face up to the past when a researcher arrives at her remote coastal home in Yorkshire to interview her about her involvement in the 1960s New York City performance art scene. Pamela Johnson popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 284 Date: July 2016
Publisher: Blue Door Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1534627246

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Pamela Johnson's third novel is set in 2002 but has its roots in a real-life tragedy from nearly 50 years earlier: in 1953 a storm surge hit the Norfolk coast, destroying Lydia Hutton's grandmother's home and sweeping her whole family out to sea. Seven-year-old Lydia was the only one to survive, clinging to the wreckage and singing hymns to herself to survive. It's a dark part of her past she's never told anyone except Luc, the half-French lover whose iconic performance art piece, Taking in Water, she participated in during a spell in New York City in the 1960s, when she was known as 'Layla' and hung around with the likes of Andy Warhol.

Now in her mid-fifties, Lydia lives in the fictional town of Slayton, on the Yorkshire coast, in a remote cliff-top beach house with a separate studio. It's not far from the site of The Marine, the hotel her family ran. After her parents' death, Lydia lived in the hotel with Aunt Jennifer and also worked there as a young woman. In 1985 a mudslide at Slayton devastated the hotel, and even in the present day Lydia still finds artefacts from it on the beach: found objects like teapots and cutlery that she photographs or draws to incorporate in her art.

Lydia's isolated peace looks set to be shattered when two young men enter her life. One is Martin, an art academic, who takes advantage of being in the area to care for his ageing mother, Eileen, to also do some digging into Lydia's past. He overcomes her deep suspicions and gets her to agree to do a series of interviews to be kept in an important arts archive. Lydia's other visitor is Steven, a coastal consultancy trainee; his company is surveying the unstable coastal land and considering a controlled explosion on Lydia's land. Chapters from the point-of-view of these two men provide some pleasant variety in the third-person narration, as do occasional short passages written from Lydia's perspective in the first person.

The dual threat to her privacy and property makes Lydia deeply uneasy, even bringing back memories of the mental breakdown she suffered in her 30s. Yet as the interviews with Martin proceed, she gets a rare opportunity to revisit memories she has suppressed for decades. The transcripts of the sound recordings are in a different font to distinguish Lydia's speech from the rest of the text. The glimpses into her past – not only her time on the New York art scene but also the few things she remembers about her childhood – feel stolen, almost illicit, like the reader is being let in on precious secrets.

The remote coastal location and the themes of art, relationships and historical tragedy reminded me of everything from The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch to Sarah Moss's Night Waking. Meanwhile, Johnson's writing style calls to mind Kate Atkinson and Tessa Hadley – she has that same subtle technique of adding up lots of short phrases joined by commas, as in one of my favourite passages below:

'Looking was what mattered. Paying attention, keeping an eye on the tussle between air and water, pattern and chaos, reminding herself it was physics, not portent or punishment but moisture clinging to particles of dust, building into clouds. When the load got too heavy, the water got dumped. Round and round it went – rain, river, sea, rain – the same water. But it was also her connection to the family.'

I also appreciated the sophisticated way in which Johnson repeats motifs. For instance, Martin's narrow escape from 9/11 on a visit to New York City the previous year is an echo of the storm that killed Lydia's family, while the image of the bodies falling from the Twin Towers finds its reflection in a character's suicide by jumping off of a roof. The crumbling cliffs might be a metaphor for Lydia's psyche, and the hotel artefacts she hoards could be symbols of all that she has lost despite her desperate efforts to hold on.

This and one of Johnson's previous novels (both of which will be reissued by Blue Door Press in 2017) have earned high praise from the likes of Helen Dunmore. The refined interplay of past and present, art and tragedy makes Johnson's work well worth reading.

Further reading suggestion: If you like Johnson's style you might also want to try A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson or The Past by Tessa Hadley.

You can read more about Pamela Johnson here.

Bookinterviews.jpg Pamela Johnson was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.

Buy Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson at Amazon.com.


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