Jenna Lord’s life has not been easy. At eight she was caught in a house fire that almost killed her, and she still bears the scars. Her brother, the only person that she could rely on, shipped out to Iraq to escape their controlling parents and left her alone. Now, living with parents who are more caught up in their problems than concerned about her, Jenna is about to start a new school.
She’s terrified. And then she meets Mitch Anderson. He is gorgeous, caring and confident. And he’s her teacher. Before she knows it, events begin spiralling wildly out of control.
Drowning Instinct is one of those books that leave you without a clear emotional response. Rather than a black and white, cut and dried sort of a feeling of love or hatred, it leaves a conglomeration of swirling greys in its wake. It’s the kind of book too, that would mean different things to a person at different points in their life. If I’d read it as a teen I might have thought it vaguely romantic; as an adult, though, I find it intensely creepy. Either way, there’s no denying that it’s beautifully written.
The subject matters contained within it are not so beautiful. Jenna is a somewhat reformed cutter. She still thinks about cutting all the time and keeps a pair of scissors handy so that her options are open. Her mother is alcoholic and depressive. Her father is a philandering control freak. Actually, everyone in this book is pretty messed up. Is it a love story? No; more a story about people struggling to function and latching on to anyone that they can so that they don’t sink.
It shows a gritty and harsh reality that sadly does exist for some people, and that is the strength of this novel. Given the environment Jenna was raised in, she’s heart-breakingly vulnerable. Every layer of protection that a sixteen year old would normally have has been stripped away. Her brother has left, her parents don’t know how to care and she doesn’t have the confidence to know her own worth. Or to be able to say no to the only affection that she is being offered.
While readers can feel for Jenna, the novel does fall into the category of mistaking pain and sorrow for character. She’s come from bad circumstances, Mitch has come from bad circumstances; but their pasts don’t make them better or more interesting people. They are inherently weak. Mitch goes through the motions of doing the right thing and being the good guy, but will ultimately break morals, ethics and laws to get what he wants. Jenna doesn’t even manage to look like she’s doing the right thing. She’ll help the people who can make her feel wanted, and forget the ones who can’t.
This definitely isn’t a fairy-tale. There is no prince – nor any princess. Just a lost and lonely girl who is too young to realise that the choice she thinks she’s making isn’t a choice at all. It’s a lifetime of destruction funnelling her into the next cycle. It’s not a happy read; we know this from the outset, but it is raw and desperately bleak.
While the story can be predictable and the plot leans heavily on coincidence, this is a book that explores the world through the eyes of an unlikely protagonist. As such, it’s fresh and brings up some interesting questions that don’t have ready answers.
Drowning Instinct – Ilsa Bick
Quercus Books (February 1, 2012)