BOOK REVIEW: Bodies of Water by V.H. Leslie

Bodies of Water splits its narrative between two women and their respective time periods. Evelyn has been working with fallen women in Victorian London, but the work and the relationships she forms within it have taken their toll. She is sent to be treated at Wakewater Hall, a hydropathy establishment nestled alongside the Thames. In the present day, Kirsten has recently split from her boyfriend and has bought an apartment in the ongoing conversion of Wakewater Hall. As she learns more about the history of the building and of the fates of Victorian drowned women, she finds herself haunted by a mysterious figure and enraptured by the water that surrounds her.

Bodies of Water is V.H. Leslie's debut novel, though she is already a veteran of the short story, releasing a collection entitled Skein and Bone just last year. The ability to create a world in a smaller space is an advantage here as Leslie quickly establishes both women, their respective plights and, most importantly, the cloying atmosphere that dominates much of the narrative. She has a clear and keen understanding of the virtues of the Gothic genre and clearly revels in the opportunity to explore it on her own terms.

The richness of the world that Leslie creates, as well as the atmosphere she maintains throughout, leaves you wanting more as a reader to sink down into the depths of Bodies of Water and become completely immersed. There are several moments where it feels as if they should be longer, more drawn out. Leslie does an excellent job of sketching the characters, both past and present, but they and their relationships could be explored further. It's a narrative that you can't put down (I read it in practically one sitting), but equally, it's one that you don't want to end, simply because it's so fascinating to explore.

It's a novel of liminal spaces and blurred boundaries, where Victorian restrictions intersect with the relative freedoms of contemporary living. In the wrong hands (and forgive the pun), the waters could have easily become muddied and confusing. Instead, Leslie acknowledges that the same environments would hold different meanings for both Kirsten and Evelyn whilst also demonstrating their similarities. They both see a figure loitering on the riverbank, but her presence signifies a deeper horror for Evelyn than it does for Kirsten. That figure is one of three things to freely travel between the two time periods, the others are the water that flows through the novel and the shared location of Wakewater Hall. The three work in tandem with each other to tease out Kirsten and Evelyn's respective experiences of this haunted little corner of the Thames.

The water is a mercurial presence throughout the novel, pouring through the pages and seeping into every aspect of the story. It's neither friend or foe, but capable of acting as both a weapon or a refuge depending upon what is needed. The character of Manon functions as an expository figure, opining on the cultural link between water and femininity as well as the way in which men have exploited the bodies of women found within the water itself. Both Kirsten and Evelyn find themselves interacting with it in different ways, sometimes as a healing force, but more often as a destructive one. It gives their interactions with the water a sense of unpredictability, something which Leslie utilises throughout the narrative to ensure readers are left guessing until the end.

A chief component of the book's success is the location, Wakewater Hall itself, intimidating, creepy and shrouded in mystery. There's a very traditionally Gothic sense of moral decay, manifested in the dilapidated shell on Kirsten's renovated apartment doorstep. It's a work in progress, but one which seems to be actively resisting improvement with seemingly random leaks and noises in its walls. Leslie imbues the Hall with a real sense of history and menace in both its Victorian and present day form. Though it is never described in minute detail, Leslie gives the reader just enough to let their imagination run, hearing the rumble of the pipes or the fountain jets echoing through its corridors. 

Relishing in its genre coding and richly atmospheric, Bodies of Water is a fascinating debut and demonstrates the promise of V.H. Leslie as a novelist. It's a book for reading by the fire with a blanket ready to draw around yourself as the brilliant chill sets in and takes hold.

Bodies of Water is available from Salt Publishing.

- Becky

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