Seventeen-year-old Meredith (“Mer”) Hall has never fit in. Living on Ocracoke, a North Carolina island, with her parents and younger sister, Rachel, Mer’s talents are windsurfing and contrariness, and she excels at both. She can see how her classmates around her make friends, pair off, hang out, and generally roll with things. But Mer just can’t.
Even within her family she feels she’s a constant disappointment, talking back to her mother, and lying, or at least withholding vital news, from her father: she’s been accepted as a participate in a major windsurfing event, but can’t conquer her new aversion to the ocean. What was once her natural element (no coincidence that her name is French for “sea”) is now a source of fear. And one which is difficult to avoid when you live on an island.
And Ocracoke is not a big place. There are only eleven students in Mer’s high school junior class. So there’s no way to shift preconceptions or dodge expectations. Everyone knows Mer and her story. “I was ‘lucky’ enough to go to one of the smallest schools in the country. I’d started there in Kindergarten and wouldn’t escape the tiny campus until graduation. Mom taught primary, so that was another ‘plus.’ She knew more about my school life than should be legal.”
Mer’s feelings run deep, whether it’s the disdain she feels for others or the chastisement she inflicts on herself, but both are topped by the ascent of first love. All of Mer’s longings here are directed towards Ben Collins, her companion since they were toddlers, and the son of her mother’s best friend, Lila.
“My feelings for him were so much bigger than words. People didn’t understand … somehow adults believed that true romantic love was reserved for them.”
As “The Sound of Drowning” opens, the reader knows something has come between Mer and Ben, and it was serious enough to sever their two families into estrangement and acrimony. We learn that she made Ben a promise, and then broke it. Somehow, though, the two have managed to reconnect and re-establish their relationship, albeit on the sly. So each evening Mer sneaks away, under the guise of working her job at the arcade (which she quit ages ago), to meet with Ben. It’s the saving of her days, to be with him, to talk and laugh as she can only talk and laugh with him.
But then a stranger intrudes into their idyll. It’s Wyatt Quinn, relocating from Texas, on a kayak jaunt that has gone astray. Wyatt is a former motorcross champion, literally a poster boy for the sport, with his own crash-and-burn sequence (recorded and available on youtube). He’s lost, and cold; what choice does Mer have but to give him a hand? But no more. His flirting and compliments are meaningless, when she’s committed to Ben.
But Wyatt is persistent. And deeper than his drawlin’ darlin’ façade suggests. He’s thoughtful and playful. And open about his personal strife — his parents are divorcing and his dad, the daring racecar driver Jimmy Quinn, is planning to marry the famous country singer Melody Adams. Apparently this keeps him so busy he’s ignoring his son.
Despite her resolve, Mer is drawn to Wyatt. Soon she is even working at his mother’s newly opened Yellow Rose Café. She’s not impervious to Wyatt’s charms, but the situation with Ben complicates things enormously.
As this progresses, there are persistent eddies and questions from the past, and especially the previous year. Mer has been seeing a therapist — why? What trust did she break with Ben, and why, despite this, has he still agreed to see her? Why did Mer cut her hair, and what else happened the night she did that?
At first I was a little impatient with Meredith’s voice, her carefully calibrated, slightly-too-constant sarcastic inner commentary (“He grinned like a shark in a tankful of seals.”) as well as her insistence on parsing every thought, action, and counter-action. But as we are pulled deeper into the novel it’s clear there is a reason why this is pitched so.
This YA novel has its touchstones of school, afterschool jobs, a young person’s dreams. But there’s a serious arc — the decisions Mer has made (and is making) have adult, real-world implications, not only to her. Her clandestine rendezvous with Ben are a secret wrapped around another puzzle enveloping another mystery. Mer must unravel this to stabilize the increasing sur-reality of her world. Wyatt is not the only intruder on her time and her thoughts. Her own memories are wrecking misleading havoc, too.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.