Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge
US pub date: April 4, 2017
This is an unassuming little book, the sum of which somehow manages to exceed its parts and become something unexpectedly extraordinary. There’s nothing terribly original about this book’s premise – a plane crashes, two strangers need to learn how to survive together – but reading Castle of Water is like taking a breath of fresh air. I was surprised by how much I loved it.
Barry Bleecker one day decides to leave his corporate Manhattan job and travel to the grave of his favorite painter, Paul Gauguin, which lies somewhere in the Marquesas. French architect and newlywed Sophie Ducel and her husband Étienne are on a honeymoon in French Polynesia, and they decide to take a detour to visit the grave of singer Jacques Brel, incidentally buried a few yards away from Gauguin. When their plane crashes somewhere between Tahiti and the Marquesas, Étienne and the pilot die on impact, leaving only Barry and Sophie to survive on a small island together – which is complicated not only by Sophie’s grief, but also by a limited patience and understanding for each other’s language and culture.
Dane Huckelbridge’s prose is hard to describe. Castle of Water is told in third-person omniscient narration which is almost insensitively concise; full of facts and devoid of any sentimentality. This story is also told with a weird, offbeat humor that resists any temptation of melodrama. It’s not at all what you’d expect and should theoretically clash with the premise of the story, which invites an onslaught of emotion and introspection. But, somehow, Huckelbridge’s approach works. Better than it should, and yet, better than its maudlin alternative. This story isn’t heartless, it isn’t cold and unfeeling. And it isn’t a comedy, either. At its core this is a bitterly, achingly sad story, which managed to both make me laugh out loud and break my heart.
Sure, this book is full of unrealistic conveniences: the survival kit they salvaged from the plane has literally everything they could possibly want; they each have unique survival knowledge that transcends the very basics you’d learn in the boy scouts; there is no universe in which three pairs of contact lenses being worn every single day is going to last a person several years; Sophie is magically able to continue to have her period despite her drastic weight loss and without any mention as to how on earth she dealt with it without an unlimited supply of tampons (this one really bugged me), but getting hung up on these details is to miss the point, because this is so much more than a simple Survival Story. If you want to read 300 pages about people surviving in the elements with nothing but the clothes on their backs, there’s plenty of fiction and nonfiction about that already. In giving these characters certain basic necessities, Huckelbridge is bending this story in a different direction, making it less about Survival and more about the characters themselves, how they interact, and how their relationship progresses. Castle of Water is first and foremost a story about humanity; about two imperfect strangers drawing on each other’s strengths in order to endure – not only to physically survive, but to sustain themselves on a deeper level.
It’s hard to communicate what exactly was so special about this book which seems so unremarkable. I can only say that Castle of Water is a book with many hidden depths, and it was a joy to read. Though there weren’t a lot of surprises, plot-wise, the big surprise was really the emotional reaction these character elicited from me. Barry and Sophie were incredibly sympathetic and complex in their own right – Sophie in particular I grew rather attached to – and I’m sad to be leaving them behind.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Dane Huckelbridge.