The publicity bumpf for Dianne Warren’s first novel compares it to the work of Carol Shields and Miriam Toews, but Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is its true kindred spirit. Set in the fictional prairie hamlet of Juliet, Saskatchewan, Cool Water takes place over the course of a single day. Naturally, the day is anything but ordinary: secrets are revealed, marriages tested, and a life ended.
The novel takes up the stories of a dozen of the town’s inhabitants. Particularly well-drawn are the portraits of Norval Birch, Juliet’s bank manager, and Vicki Dolson, a struggling mother of six. Although the two never meet over the course of the novel, their lives are inextricably connected, in the manner of folks who live in a small town. Birch is aware of Vicki’s situation and empathizes with her; thoughts of her and her family consume him throughout his day. Vicki, meanwhile, moves through the novel, herding her kids and demonstrating her sweet, clueless-yet-knowing nature with every word she utters. The two characters are simply and truthfully drawn, and Warren avoids the kind of cloying “just folks” attitude that could so easily overwhelm such portrayals.
The bit players are often kept too far in the background, only to appear, chorus-like, to witness the last hour of a man’s life or to offer up a long-lost box of letters before vanishing entirely from the scene. Would that such story elements were handled with the same grace Warren demonstrates when she describes a new widow cleaning up the chopsticks used by her husband for what would be his last supper. The stunning, crushing sense of loss in this scene feels like the reader’s own.
Warren’s treatment of the town’s sand dunes as a metaphor for the lives of its inhabitants is problematic. The novel’s penultimate sentence reads, “The surface slowly changing shape.” The implication here is that the surface of the dune changes but the essentials remain the same, which seems to contradict the experience of the townspeople, whose surfaces never change although their depths roil with emotion and incident. It’s a puzzling way to leave these characters, who nevertheless remain in the reader’s mind, along with the town in which they live.