We Are Water by American author Wally Lamb is the examination of a family riven by differences, tragedy and horrors, how they first avoid then finally admit the truths and shame, in order to face the future. It is a story about looking forwards, not back.
I loved the storyline set-up in the Prologue, elderly artist and curator Gualtiero Agnello recalls the discovery of a self-taught artist, Josephus Jones, a poor black man in the Sixties with a raw untapped gift. But then as the story develops, Jones is not centre stage. The focus is on Annie Oh, another untutored artist discovered by Agnello, who lived in the same house where Jones lived in a shed out back and where he died in a well. Murder or accident, it is never proven.
Via the Oh family, Lamb explores the imbalance of family life, its events and consequences. When she is small. Annie loses her mother in a flood which devastates the town of Three Rivers in Connecticut. This flood is based on a real-life event though the town is fictional. Growing up, Annie is subjected to abuse which remains unspecified for a long time. The reader comes to realise she was abused, but not how or why. Annie’s husband Orion knows only that she had a difficult childhood. As a psychology professor, he suspects a tough childhood but backs-off challenging her about it.
Raising her three children – Ariane, Andrew and Marissa – Annie is a strict mom who occasionally hits her son, but never her daughters. In an escape from motherhood she starts to make art in the basement of the house, using materials foraged from refuse. When a New York art agent sees her work, this is the catalyst for change. Annie leaves Orion and falls in love with her agent, Viveca. This action puts the focus on all the fissures within the Oh family and raises various issues they have denied and hidden. Andrew finds God, Marissa is a jobbing actress and an alcoholic, Ariane conceives by artificial insemination. When they gather for the wedding of Annie and Viveca, a sequence of events brings the past to life again and the secrets and horror come crashing back.
Lamb’s focus on family reminds me of the novels of Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley, although of course he is a man writing a woman’s point of view. Once I got over my disappointment at not reading more about Josephus Jones I enjoyed this, at times difficult, novel.
If you like this, try:-
‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ by Bill Clegg
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘If I Knew You Were This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go’ by Judy Chicurel
‘We Are Water’ by Wally Lamb [UK: Harper] Buy at Amazon
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