In 1967, a residential area of the Saint John River Valley in New Brunswick was flooded to create a hydroelectric dam. Out of the inspiration from this historical event, Riel Nason builds her first novel.
Fourteen-year-old narrator Ruby Carson was like any other girl until she fell through the ice while skating, had a vision, and began babbling nonsense about the town being underwater, long before anyone knew about the flood plans. It doesn’t help that Ruby’s younger brother Percy is also considered strange. (Though never specified, the narrative makes it clear that Percy has a type of autism.) As the town grapples with the government over its coming fate, Ruby struggles with the throes of adolescence, her challenging brother, and the repercussions of her vision on the town’s residents.
The strength of The Town That Drowned is Ruby’s voice: charming, wry, and believable. The tone skews somewhat young at times (bringing to mind YA great Kit Pearson), but Nason’s narrative control demonstrates literary maturity. Nason’s writing shines in the ominous scenes, where a creeping feeling of dread is juxtaposed with the sweetness of Ruby’s coming of age.
The details and imagery – from Ruby’s mother’s paintings to the stale bread that litters one particular stretch of road every day – are fully alive, and a large, potentially unwieldy cast of characters is well-managed. Nason has a particular gift for introducing supporting characters with memorable anecdotes, each of which reads like a sparkling little gem of a short story.
While the energy peters out somewhat as the book winds down, the quality of the writing is solid throughout. The prose style is smooth and clean, and avoids calling attention to itself, allowing Ruby’s voice, vibrating with contradictory desires, to deliver shot-to-the-heart moments of real humour and pathos.