The Town That Drowned by Riel Nason

20th Jun 2012


Ruby Carson is a fifteen-year-old girl in the 1960s with a difficult younger brother and a bad case of ‘weird’ that she can’t shake off.

Nason portrays the struggles of being a teenager and coming to terms with oneself in a way that includes all the staples of a young adult novel: anxieties over appearance, the first romance, and an inevitable longing to fit in.

She does this with poignancy, though, and with a touching simplicity of language. Ruby, the narrator, doesn’t act like a one: the prose is natural and we amble through the novel as Ruby ambles through her life.

One day on an outing, Ruby falls over while ice-skating and hits her head on the ice. She has a vision which proves uncannily accurate, adding to the stigma attached to her family and increasing her fears for those she loves.

Parts of the book have a feel of the Salem Witch Trials about it, as Nason shows how quickly rumours can spread and opinions become realities, at least for those who are the subject of them.

In a novel full of things that do not last, it is particularly noticeable how certain things do stick around, no matter how we try to shake them off: bad reputations, unpopularity, singleness, disabilities and mental illness are all explored in a down-to-earth way.

What makes this novel so special is Ruby’s little brother, Percy. Percy appears to have a form of what we now describe as autism, in the 1960s when such diagnoses weren’t available.

How can a family even attempt to blend in with a son who cries himself silly at the age of nine, over what most people would think are incredibly minor disturbances?

And how can a boy who is so obsessed with routines and rituals cope when everything he knows is literally being moved from under his feet? These are questions that Nason raises and shows us some touching answers to.

This is a book that makes us think about how, as a society, we preserve things, about what is really important to us and whether we are willing to stand out from others if it means being branded as different.

Though it is a very simple story, a lot lies beneath the surface of The Town that Drowned. The winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Prize, it’s published by Goose Lane Editions.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: Though this is a young adult novel, it is by no means tied to that age group. I would recommend it to anybody who loves to read fiction about communities.

Other recommended reading:Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and Mercy by Caroline B. Cooney.

Katie Wood