Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J Bick

Jenna Lord’s given a voice recorder by the detective working on her case. She’s just woken up in the hospital, and he wants her to tell the truth of the story about what happened. Why she’s there. Why and how she almost died. Again.

She agrees, and we’re thrust into something much, much darker than expected.

Jenna’s family life is anything but pretty. Her father’s a surgeon and he’s exceptionally controlling and demanding. Jenna’s mother works long hours at the bookstore she’s in charge of, so she’s not around much. That may or may not have to do with the fact she’s also an alcoholic and avoids her husband. Then there’s Matt — Jenna’s brother — who enlisted in the military to get away from the mess of a family. She and he are close, and she turns to him when she needs an escape. Then there’s grandpa, who is in an institution because he’s unstable, too. That may or may not have something to do with the fire in his house, the one which caused Jenna many of the scars and skin grafts covering her body.

The rest of the scars, though, are her own doing.

It’s those scars which put her into therapy and which eventually lead to her being sent to Turing for school. Her father believes putting her in a new environment like Turing would be good for her and help her adjust to being a normal girl again, whatever that is. But when she starts school, things only become more complicated. She meets Mr. Anderson — Mitch — near immediately on her first day, and she meets him when he’s wearing close to nothing.

It’s the start of a relationship between a teacher and a student that should have clear cut answers. That should be about right and wrong. But it’s so, so not.

Drowning Instinct is the kind of novel I love: it’s character driven, it’s dark, and there are no right or wrong answers. It’s not a clear cut story, and just when I thought I had an idea of how things would progress, I’m not given the break. Because the characters — Jenna, especially — gets absolutely no breaks in this story. Her only break comes in the form of self-mutilation. That’s why she was getting therapy in the first place (or at least that’s how it’s explained and the truth is, that’s not necessarily the whole truth). Jenna cuts to escape the pain from her home, and because it gives her a sense of ownership.

And cuts heal.

The relationship between Jenna and Mitch, one which should cause the reader discomfort because of what it is, challenges expectations. Mitch is so good to Jenna and he’s the first adult who has given Jenna any reason to feel safe and secure. He also gives her opportunities and responsibility, and he believes in her not only as a student, but also as a runner. She’d given up running, but he wants her to go out for the team. He wants her to be his teaching assistant. He goes out of his way to keep an eye on her. While Jenna is at times skeptical about him, she eventually allows herself to see he is being genuinely concerned for her, and that he genuinely cares about her well-being — something she’s never experienced before outside of a therapy office. He knows a lot about her, and he happens to have this knowledge because he’s done his research (and he tells her that much) but also because he stumbles upon some of the same messes she does. He sees how unstable her family is first hand.

Then Mitch maybe delivers the biggest blow Jenna’s ever felt and the one that rattles her awake. He knows the truth to her biggest secret. One she doesn’t believe he could possibly know. But he does.  It almost seals her to him now. He’s ripped open one of her scars and lets it bleed. 

Even though Jenna decides he’s worth trusting, she’s wondering where the faults in his story are, and the closer she gets to him, the more time she spends with him in and outside the classroom, the more cracks she’s finding. His wife is never around and he never talks about her. Then there’s a picture in Mitch’s house that haunts Jenna. And then the time she called his house and his wife — supposedly away taking care of a sick family member — answers. It’s not just the wife situation that makes Jenna nervous though: it’s the fact Mitch appears to have had a relationship with another high school girl, Danielle, and she’s not exactly friendly with Jenna. Then there’s Danielle’s comment about how Mitch always liked the broken girls. These words rub Jenna wrong. They feel like knives on her flesh.

But she hasn’t pressed down yet.

The relationship between Jenna and Mitch is tortured. But it’s also safe. When they’re together, when he’s holding onto her with love and affection she so desperately needs and deserves, everything feels right. And yes, things get sexual. There is something so tender in those moments though that as readers, we almost forget they’re teacher and student. That Mitch is her superior. That he’s married. When they’re apart though, when Jenna’s left alone with her thoughts, that’s when things don’t seem right. That’s when she questions who Mitch is and whether or not he’s good for her. The thing is, she can’t stop herself from staying close to him.

He’s become her new method of cutting.

Bick’s talent is not only in drawing these incredibly complex characters. It’s the fact she has developed a pair of characters who aren’t clear cut on whether they’re victim or predator. It goes both ways. They feed off one another, and their secrets (and the secret of their relationship itself) tread a morally ambiguous line because the way it’s presented makes it feel so right and so wrong at the same time. Jenna deserves this kind of love and even though we aren’t entirely clear what’s going on in Mitch’s life, it just seems like he does too. And the way he treats Jenna makes it feel that way, too. They’re safety nets for one another time and time again. Even if there are suspicious things afloat. Jenna and Mitch are very broken people, as are the other characters in the story. Each character carries immense pain and sadness but never once does it come off as melodramatic. It’s drawn realistically, with a rawness that slices through what could/should be morally straight-forward territory for readers. None of these characters, even the ones with little page time, feels wasted and none of their struggles feel like shortcuts through the story.

What also stood out to me in this book was the use of place and space to tell the story. Bick is a Wisconsin author, and she’s not afraid to set her books here. Drowning Instinct is neat in being set both in suburban Milwaukee (where Jenna attends school) and in the more rural areas outside the suburbs. The rural settings add a haunting feel to the story and they mimic the relationship between Jenna and Mitch well: there’s the safety of the suburban setting but then there’s the questionable nature of nature itself in those more remote areas. In places like the cabin on Mitch’s quiet property. For me, the setting was a crucial layer to developing the story and the characters.

The book is well-paced, starting slower at the beginning as Jenna comes to in the hospital, but it eventually picks up speed until the very end. I had become so invested in the characters and unraveling the truths of these characters that I read through the bulk of it in one sitting. The reveals make use of subtle details woven into the story, but maybe the real power of the reveals is that they’re not necessarily all that settling. They add further shades of gray to the story and to the characters. There are no real answers here, but the feeling I walked away with when I finished the book was worth the uncertainty. I took away what I needed to take away, and I like to think it’s the same take away Jenna has. I also found myself crying near the end of the story, as well. I’d fallen so in love with the characters, their flaws and mistakes and all, that I couldn’t help but feel the full weight of everything crashing around them. Bick made me care enough to not only love the story but also emotionally connect with these hurting and aching characters, despite the endless stream of mistakes they made.

Drowning Instinct will appeal to readers who like their stories dark, realistic, and raw and who like their stories to have real voice behind them. These characters are desperate and broken, and the book is relentless. It’s wholly contemporary, and it’ll appeal to fans of Amy Reed and Courtney Summers with content and character execution, and the set up of the book — the short chapters, the great pacing — will make it quite appealing to fans of Ellen Hopkins, as well. I could also see this novel working for fans of Lucy Christopher’s Stolen and Tabitha Suzuma’s Forbidden for readers interested in novels about elicit and taboo relationships. I’ve read two other novels this year, neither of which I’ve had a chance to review, but it reminded me of a mash up of the two of them, and I’ve found it fascinated how this year’s novels are playing around with the norms of family, of safety, of security, of what it means to love and be loved, and just what survival takes. I have respect and admiration for authors who go for it full out, giving their characters challenge upon challenge, and Bick offers exactly that. 

I wouldn’t say this book doesn’t appeal to reluctant readers because it does, but I think more mature readers will walk away with a lot from this book, especially as it comes to issues of right and wrong. Those who appreciate Laurie Halse Anderson will want to give this one a shot, too. I didn’t touch on the metaphor here, the whole idea of the drowning instinct, but it’s a huge one smartly thread through the story, and readers who want a more literary read will find it here. The back cover summary sums it up really well, I think: this is a fairy tale with teeth and a novel about pain, deception, desperation and love. Without doubt, this book will stick with me for a long time, and it will be one of my 2012 favorites.

Review copy received from the publisher. This book also has one of the best covers around, doesn’t it?

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  1. says

    I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading your review. It captures this book so well. It made me uncomfortable and heartbroken all over again. I agree, that this is for more mature teens, not reluctant readers necessarily. It's meaty. It's emotional. Great stuff. Thanks.

    • says

      It's a heartbreaking and uncomfortable read, but in the way it should be, isn't it? I do think reluctant readers will be pulled in by the premise and by the voice and the execution (the short chapters make the book fly) but more mature readers will find a lot worth teasing out. And the emotions — I wasn't quite expecting it but I got it!

  2. says

    First of all, I LOVE ILSA J BICK. She is just so, so talented. I pretty much hate the idea of an student-teacher relationship, especially one where the student already has some pretty deep issues, and especially one where the teacher is married. But, I love this author. So I will give it a shot. Yikes, I am going to have to get mentally prepared going into this one. And is it time for Ashes #2 yet???

    • says

      This is the second book of hers I've read and I wholeheartedly agree — she is so talented. Go into this one ready to question the notion of who is a victim because that's what it'll offer you.

      I think the second Ashes book is out in the fall.

    • says

      I haven't read that one but I'm so intrigued — not only for the historical(ish) aspects to it, but also because it's set in Wisconsin too. And obviously, I'm impressed with Bick's writing.

      I hope you review it when you finish.

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