May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

by Jim Grimsley

It’s hard to imagine a harsher, more hardscrabble existence than the one endured by the characters in Jim Grimsley’s new novel. Raised in rural North Carolina, Ellen Tote must cope with poverty, hunger, a crippled pedophile uncle, a paralyzed brother, hostile siblings, the death of a baby sister, a brutal drunken father and an illiterate, much-abused mother whose nightmares wake the household. Years later, as an old woman, Ellen seeks the meaning of a recurrent dream—a troubling fantasy in which her mother nearly drowns in a swollen river. Her search for an explanation provides the taut thread that pulls us through this small, disturbing novel.

Grimsley writes lucidly and well. There’s a lyric intensity and a quiet authority in Ellen’s narrative voice, and thoughtful consideration has been given to the question of how one makes peace with the griefs of the past. But too many characters are one-dimensional and underdeveloped, and their situation—privation, ignorance, domestic violence—is all too familiar. Sadly, this lack of complexity and individualizing detail makes My Drowning more like a catalog of woes than a fully realized work of art. (Algonquin, S18.95)

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