Review: Dark Water by Sara Bailey
Nightingale Editions, £8.99
Review by Shirley Whiteside
Dark water is a diving term that is used when a diver no longer knows which way is up and which is down. It is a fitting title for Sara Bailey’s debut novel, a haunting tale of teenage obsession and betrayal where things are not quite as they first seem.
Helena returns to her childhood home on Orkney after many years away, a glossy metropolitan version of her former self. She is back to look after her father who is very ill, and to help her step-mother. As soon as she steps onto the island news of her return seems to spread by osmosis. This feature of life on a small island immediately sets the scene for the rest of the story. Bailey creates a suffocating atmosphere where secrets are almost impossible to keep. But there are some hidden truths yet to come to light, such as the mysterious disappearance Anastasia, Helena’s best friend, who never returned from a moonlight dare to swim between the ship wrecks around Orkney. Helena fled the island soon after Anastasia vanished, and her return dredges up painful memories.
The intense nature of the teenage friendship between Helena and Anastasia is worryingly obsessive; writing notes to each other in their own blood, and promising to stick together, “through sick and sin”. When boys enter their world, a fissure forms that slowly widens, stretching the girls’ loyalty to each other to breaking point.
Helena narrates most of the story, with some sections told in the third person, and it works well, giving characters such as Dylan, Helena’s first love, more breadth and depth. The flashbacks are particularly well handled with the wild swoops of over-confidence and then crippling shyness showing how confusing the mid-teenage years can be. The supporting characters are carefully drawn, especially Helena’s ailing father and worn-out step-mother. Gloria, a family friend and near-neighbour who has taken over Anastasia’s old home, is wonderfully blunt and pushy.
In Bailey’s hands, Orkney becomes a character in its own right. The very particular light, the constant wind and unpredictable weather, and the savage beauty of the landscape form a dramatic backdrop to her story. The scenes where the teenage girls skinny dip in the still-cold summer seas are dreamlike as they swim in and around the ship wrecks that once protected Orkney’s natural harbours from Nazi invasion. Lying on the rocks to dry out, they share their deepest secrets and hopes for their futures that lie far away from Orkney’s shores. Their plans always include each other.
This is not a fast-paced thriller but Bailey does control the flow of information skilfully, and it never drags or feels padded out. Instead, it is a slow-burn, psychological study that is both gripping and emotionally involving. It is well plotted and it is hard to believe that this is Bailey’s debut. It feels like a story that has waited a long time to be told and has resonances with her own recent return to Orkney after a long time away.