In Wally Lamb’s captivating new novel, those who breathe the rarefied air of New York’s art world consider Annie Oh an “angry” artist. They assume the installations she creates out of roadside trash, sidewalk finds and the odd bits of yarn, metal, paint and discarded mannequins to be merely a reflection of her rebellious nature.
What her family and admirers don’t know is that Annie’s art is her way to “fight back against the monster,” and in Lamb’s “We Are Water,” revelations about the formidable beasts that provoke her need to “scream out” unfold in a story anchored by tragedy and the weight of guilt.
When the story opens, Annie’s toxic secrets are scarcely revealed. This compelling novel, at first glance, appears to be about the dissolution of Annie’s 27-year marriage to her psychologist husband, Orion, and the impending nuptials that will join Annie to the new love in her life, her art dealer Viveca. The novel’s opening has an almost lighthearted quality. Orion’s invited to the wedding, Annie’s fretting over the bridal gowns and Viveca thinks it would be lovely to be married in Orion’s back yard. One can almost imagine this being the perfect plot for a politically correct 21st-century romantic comedy of manners.
As Annie’s shocking secrets are revealed, “We Are Water” becomes a darker, more complicated story. Something malevolent has been bearing down on her for years. When Annie was a child, her mother was killed in a flood. Annie’s been drowning ever since in memories that have ruined her marriage, damaged her children and, in many ways, inspired her art.
Lamb reveals Annie’s history through five voices: Annie’s, of course, but also that of Orion and their three children — Andrew, a born-again Christian who considers his mother’s upcoming marriage “messed up”; Ariane, who, although she’s only in her 20s, has given up on finding true love and becomes pregnant through artificial insemination, and the free-spirited Marissa, who’s struggling with alcoholism and destructively bad decisions.
In his singularly perceptive voice, Lamb immerses his characters and the novel’s readers in powerful moments of hope and redemption and shocking descriptions of violence and abuse. The novel’s focus on the creative process flows through an equally fascinating subplot that deals with the life and suspicious death of an African-American artist whose works inspired Annie’s career.
“We Are Water” is the story of a modern family haunted by age-old demons. As he did in “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True,” Lamb explores the collateral damage brought on by trauma and the amazing resilience of the human spirit.
Carol Memmott’s book reviews have appeared in USA Today and the Chicago Tribune.