Early in Laurie Glenn Norris’s new novel – which is based on a real murder – 16-year-old Mary Harney, her brother and sister, and her mother, Ann, travel home after a visit to Ann’s family. The date is August 1876. As the familiar homestead comes into view, Mary feels butterflies in her stomach: “she did not want to go into that house.” Norris’s sad and suspenseful story explains Mary’s unease. Within a year, a body believed to be hers will wash up on the shores of Prince Edward Island: whatever she’s coming home to will be the literal death of her.
The historical Mary Harney’s fate remains unknown – there is only, Norris tells us in a note, a scant archive of newspaper stories about the case. It was up to the novelist, therefore, to imagine the life Mary lived and the way she died – and to do so in a manner that makes the ending we already know to be coming feel at once shocking and inevitable. The situation Norris tackles is gripping despite being somewhat rote: an abusive, sexually predatory father; an oppressed and ineffectual mother; a community that suspects the worst but does not intervene until it’s too late.
Found Drowned reaches back to the marriage of Ann and Will Harney and moves forward through Mary’s upbringing in the unhappy home dominated by Will – quick to suspicion, jealousy, and rage – and his demanding mother, Mabel. “Will’s got a dirty temper just like his grandfather,” Will’s brother explains to Ann, offering an excuse in lieu of an apology for her troubles: “it runs in the family.” While Will drinks and Mabel carps, Ann retreats into her books; as Mary grows up, she takes what refuge she can in dreams and imagination. As the pressure builds, our anticipation of Mary’s death turns every detail into a potential portent.
The family story is set in counterpoint to the discovery of the corpse – which Will identifies as Mary’s – and the subsequent investigation. His neighbours, convinced “that son of a bitch did something to her,” write to the chief of police in Halifax, who dispatches a detective to seek the truth. Norris’s ending is consistent with the unresolved nature of the original crime; to quote Wilkie Collins, one of Ann’s favourite authors, the case against Will Harney ultimately has “no evidence but moral evidence.” In the end, the reader understands who Norris believes killed Mary and how, but there is no explicit account given of exactly what happened. In this way, Norris both feeds and frustrates the prurient curiosity about the murder that is inevitably but uncomfortably essential to the novel’s momentum.
Found Drowned is artfully constructed, though the prose, including the dialogue, often seems stilted. Norris is at her best describing the novel’s Cumberland County setting. As for Mary, the historical truth may be beyond recovery, but at least now she has a fictionalized retelling that aspires to do her justice.