The Waters: A Novel

  • By Bonnie Jo Campbell
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sally Shivnan
  • February 14, 2024

A magical, overly earnest tale set in a Michigan swamp.

The Waters: A Novel

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s bold, compelling The Waters, her first new novel in over a decade, features a swampy, mystical Michigan island in conflict with the modern world. The island’s matriarch is Hermine, a brilliant herbalist who concocts healing potions for the neighbors while raising her granddaughter, Donkey, an 11-year-old math savant who bravely works to make sense of her surroundings.

When Donkey’s mother and Hermine’s daughter, Rose Thorn, shows up, life gets complicated. Rose Thorn is dealing with both new illness and old trauma, and her return reminds everyone of some dark family secrets and unanswered questions, including long-buried mysteries regarding Donkey’s father.

The island is a place of ghosts, magical plants, rare serpents, and secret caves that’s reached via a drawbridge surrounded by dangerous “quickmuck.” On the other end of that bridge is a recognizable world full of polluting corporations, heartless healthcare, toxic masculinity, and guns. For Campbell, these contrasts are not simple clashes of good and evil, however. The world of her book is a complicated web of mixed motives and interdependent relationships in which men and women, despite their differences, need each other.

The author’s sympathies clearly lie with the nature-lovers of the island, “a place where women shared one another’s dreams, a place where women did what they wanted.” She captures lovely details of the island’s plants and creatures, such as in her remarkable description of the elusive Massasauga rattlesnake, whose skin has a “rich swamp-mud pattern made up of thousands of colored scales, its spine saddled with dozens of chocolate-colored moth shapes. On top of those mud colors was a golden sheen like that on butterfly wings.”

Campbell is equally good at describing the world of men and machines, whether she’s painting a picture of an old pick-up truck or the life of a celery farmer. She is expert, too, at capturing the charms her male characters hold for the book’s women, charms that frequently involve scents. Rose Thorn lies awake thinking of her lover, “remembering the alfalfa-sweat-diesel smell of him,” and young Donkey studies the grown men around her, “all sizes and shapes of them,” and decides they smell “skunky, musky, even soapy, each of them like a new animal species.”

The novel also delivers thought-provoking insights worth a pause to read twice. “To be the youngest,” Donkey observes, “was to be the carrier of the hopes you always continue to frustrate.” Hermine studies the charismatic Rose Thorn and wonders, “How would such a beauty who barely touched the ground ever become a grown-up, a mother, someone old?”

The writing throughout The Waters is as lush as the island at its heart, but it can feel like too much. The pace is slow in places, and the style tends toward exposition, even in dramatic moments that should be action-driven and fast. Neither is the dialogue always as sharp and revealing as it might be, nor the details of medical situations and childbirth completely convincing.

Campbell explores a number of powerful, important themes here — the meaning of family and community; the forces that drive people apart but also pull them together; the tragedy of environmental disregard; the ways that we privilege technology and logic at the expense of nature and intuition — but they’re often presented heavy-handedly. And although she paints her characters in complex, sensitive ways, some readers may find it hard to engage fully with them because of the novel’s earnest messaging.

Nevertheless, the book addresses urgent themes that linger long after the story ends. Especially for lovers of magic and mystery, The Waters offers a warm, indulgent swim.

Sally Shivnan is the author of the short-story collection Piranhas & Quicksand & Love. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, and other journals, and her travel writing has been featured in anthologies including Best American Travel Writing, as well as in the Washington Post, Miami Herald, Nature Conservancy Magazine, and many other publications. She teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

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