The latest novel from the ever lovely Caroline Smailes, with its powerful mix of gritty realism and Greek mythology (it retells the classic myths of Apollo and Daphne, Medea and Jason, Castor and Pollux), is a tragic love story of epic proportions that manages to be at once authentic in its portrayal of teenagers and dazzling in the imaginative leaps that power the story to its inevitable and heart breaking ending. And that’s not a spoiler by the way, or if it is then the title’s the biggest spoiler of all.
Arthur Braxton is a young man with problems. His mum’s run off with an old flame and his dad’s lost the plot. He’s bullied at school and a girl he fancies just tricked him into showing her his cock and now the picture is all over Facebook. Walking the streets near the derelict Victorian swimming baths, named The Oracle, he finds himself drawn inside by the irresistible sound of singing and finds himself transfixed by the sight of a naked girl floating in the water. From this point on his life will never be the same.
The story of Arthur, following his discovery of Delphina and her strange companions in the derelict pool, is told in variety of voices and styles. Arthur’s perspective is delivered in a vibrant first person that perfectly captures the tone and preoccupations of the adolescent male, while the tragic figure of Laurel, who narrates the opening of the novel as well as a key section later in the book, provides a powerful counterpoint to Arthur’s voice, full of aching similarities even as her own tragic story plunges into ever darker territory. Sections written in the style of a play script, fitting in light of the stories Greek inspirations, help to lighten the story at times, with the comic pair of Kester and Pollock coming across like Statler and Waldorf as they shout down from the spectator seats surrounding the Males 1st Class pool.
The setting of the Oracle itself is drawn so vividly as to almost become a character itself. We see it in use during Laurel’s sections and in various states of abandoned disrepair during Arthur’s, while the central dramatic script sections fill in what we cannot see through the eyes of these characters. In her afterword, Caroline Smailes talks about the inspiration for her setting, Victoria Baths on Harsage Road in Manchester. It is a testament to her descriptive skills that, on taking a look at the place via the internet after finishing the book, I was struck by how closely the photographs resembled the fictional Oracle I now have in my head.
Last night, with about a quarter of the book left to read, I found myself reading just one more chapter before going to bed. Then just one more. Until, desperate to find out just how Arthur meets the end promised by the book’s title, I flew right through to the final, gripping lines. If you’ve read any of Caroline Smailes other novels, you will know she is an author who does not pull her punches and the ending of The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is no exception. This is a compelling book, from a compelling author. Since finishing this latest work I have not quite been able to shake Arthur and Delphina from my thoughts, every time I think they have retreated to the depths, they burst the surface once again. Like all great tragic romances, it seems they live forever in their story.