There are two protagonists in Elizabeth Black's debut novel, "The Drowning House," that vie for the reader's attention; both are shrouded in mystery, and their outward appearances rarely reveal the turmoil that takes place below the surface. One is Clare Porterfield, a photographer who cannot escape the heavy burden of her young daughter's death. The other is the island of Galveston, Texas, a happy-go-lucky beach resort for tourists and an insular community of B.O.I.s (Born On Island) that alternately protects and punishes its own.
Clare had tragically lost her daughter and, at the same time, "I also lost the person I was then, the person I was becoming." Her flourishing photography career stalled as she sank deeper into depression. One day her agent relays an invitation to curate an exhibit in Galveston, Clare's hometown, and after her extended absence from the island she returns to a world she knew both intimately and not at all.
As Clare researches photos for the exhibition, she draws closer to the Carradays, a neighboring family she has known since childhood. Exuding power and control, patriarch Will Carraday brings Clare under his wing, as his wife, his housekeeper and his mistress all subtly -- and not so subtly -- warn Clare away from pursuing her research into family secrets that may reveal more than she is prepared to handle.
But Clare is by nature a snoop and a spy. If she isn't using her camera to capture someone's private moment, she is rummaging through drawers and under beds searching for clues to resolve her unanswered questions. She seems to have few allies on the island; her mother and her sister treat her with thinly veiled hostility, her childhood friend seems to be avoiding her, even the photo archivist gives her a difficult time. Only Tyler Henry, the "mainlander," provides her with a sense of neutrality.
Black, a poet, takes great care to construct each paragraph to reflect the complicated physical and emotional landscape of Clare's hometown. Unfortunately, her writing style often overshadows the plot, sending the reader to and fro between characters and side stories that never satisfactorily come to fruition.
Where Black succeeds is in her ability to craft a novel that encapsulates the convoluted machinations of a powerful family within the larger context of a society that supports its own, no questions asked.
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.