A Study in Drowning by Ava Reid
When architecture student Effy Sayre wins a contest to design her favorite author's family manor, she finds herself on a remote, crumbling estate filled with disturbing secrets. With the help of a rival student, Effy must unravel a decades-old mystery, but there are dark forces, both mortal and magical, conspiring against them, and the truth may bring them both to ruin.
LENGTH: 384 pages
AGE: Young Adult
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Secondary Character(s).
Ava Reid is one of a small group of authors who I trust when reading a new story that deals with abuse and the precarity of survival. A STUDY IN DROWNING deals with institutional misogyny, sexual abuse, and societal dismissal of complaints about the same, all while telling a gripping story that delves into perception, unreality, and the difficulty of knowing what’s real or imagined when you’re dismissed out of hand as hysterical or crazy. Any summary or specific explanation that I could provide pales in comparison to just how fucking good this book is. It has a specific focus on abuse by men in power on young women who are technically women, and that they're legally adults but are in that strange zone where any signs of maturity are taken as indications that they knew exactly what they were getting into, but they can still be conveniently dismissed as children in an instant when it's convenient for their abusees. Even this thought is an inadequate paraphrasing of the way that this position is described in the text.
A STUDY IN DROWNING is a story of uncertainty and a shaky sense of reality, figuring out how to name and shame abusers who use their power, position, and (often) gender to obscure and diminish their abuse, and to cultivate uncertainty as to whether they did what they did, and if they did it, if it even was wrong. The fantastical setting allows for a recursive reinforcement of themes of decay, drowning, and rot as the specter of the Fairy King is invoked, threatened, and manifested in turn to build a story where the water is certain, death is inevitable, but drowning is slow. In that gap is room for denial and obfuscation as the water rises.
Effy is obsessed with the works of a particular author, and of his novel, Angharad, in particular. It tells the story of the Fairy King seducing his human bride from the perspective of that girl. Effy has the text largely memorized, and many lines in it are deeply meaningful to her, whispered as talismans against the sexism of her daily life. In a country where she has to go to the architecture college because no women are allowed in the literature college, the idea that one of the most famous writers in her country would have written this book with such a careful and nuanced understanding of a female perspective is deeply meaningful and inspiring to her. The college bars women because of misogynist nonsense about their minds being unable to handle understanding or producing great works of literature. Though she is admitted at the architecture college, Effy is the only female student there. The few girls in her dorm who are studying at the music college where they are admitted in greater numbers.
At first, Effy has a xenophobic reaction to learning that a boy from an enemy nation was admitted to study at the literature college at the same time she was denied because of her gender. She ends up meeting him, and it turns into a rivals to lovers scenario where they work together to get around the sexist institution and call abusers to account. Gradually it becomes clear as Effy is able to think and process more specifically that one of the professors abused her. She feels unable to go to anyone for help, or even necessarily to be certain in herself, that it was wrong. The other students assume she used her body to get where she is, that somehow she doesn't deserve to be in the same halls as them.
A STUDY IN DROWNING has cemented Ava Reid on my must-read list for her consistently nuanced handling of themes of abuse and coercion in ways that leverage the strengths of fantasy to help deal with traumatic realities surrounding sexism and abuses of power.
Graphic/Explicit CW for sexism, misogyny.
Moderate CW for xenophobia, bullying, panic attacks/disorders, emotional abuse, child abuse, abandonment, sexual harassment, medical content, parental death, death.
Minor CW for mental illness, hallucinations, cursing, drug use, alcohol, alcoholism, sexual abuse, pedophilia, animal death, murder, war.