May Read of the Month: “In the Lonely Backwater,” by Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

In the Lonely Backwater (Regal House Publishing, 2022) would be a grand read if it were only a clever psychological mystery or simply a unique coming-of-age story, but Valerie Nieman achieves so much more than that. With gorgeous description and elegant prose, Nieman transforms a North Carolina village and marina into a haunting character in this fine literary novel. Readers who enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing will love this story and its likeable teen protagonist, Maggie Warshauer. Beautifully written and perfectly paced, In the Lonely Backwater is a great choice for book clubs.

A deeply complex sixteen-year-old, Maggie lives with her alcoholic father in a rundown houseboat at a marina on a lake formed when the Corps of Engineers built a dam and flooded the land. What used to be hills are now islands peeping above the water’s surface, reminders that much lies hidden beneath the surface of the water, just as much lies hidden beneath the surface of the villagers, especially Maggie.

Maggie’s “dearly departed” beautiful mother abandoned the family for a rich man and fancier lifestyle. The teen helps her father keep the battered marina going by running the store and cleaning the boats. Small segments of the novel are pathetically sad love letters the father writes to his ex-wife, but for the most part, the novel is told in the deliciously close, yet often inscrutable, first-person voice of Maggie.

Maggie wants to become a naturalist, following in the footsteps of her hero, Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. An astute observer, she creates her own taxonomy of plants, animals, people, and terrain. The novel’s loveliest passages come when Maggie observes the lush natural world surrounding the rundown marina:

I remember Vann asking, had I seen anyone when I was walking home.

Clouds underlit by lightning. Wisteria smell. Below the old plantation house, down by the fallen-in cabins, something white had come out of the woods and flashed past me. Big. I heard the leaves scatter, the drumbeat of hooves. It was one of the albino deer that show up around the lake—I realized that, even though my heart was hammering and I stopped on the path and listened before moving as quickly as I could down the hill to the lake, the wind banshee-howling in the shrouds of the sailboats.

Passages like this are scattered throughout the story. And then there’s this observation of a great blue heron:

The heron had its head pulled back as though it was going to stab something, then eased down and shook its neck-feathers. . . . The great blue had stalked deeper into the water off the point. Now he was cocked like a gun—one foot up—then fast-fast he struck and brought up a good-sized fish.

Not only does Maggie observe the natural world, she is also perceptive about people. For example, she categorizes the types of sailors who visit the marina—boat bums, hopefuls, daysailers, yachtsmen, and AWOLs—and comes up with clever explanations for each type. She analyzes behavior with great insight for a teen, noticing the way her beautiful cousin Charisse keeps Elizabeth, a plain girl, “around for contrast.” Maggie’s cousin Charisse “won the genetic lottery—tall but not too tall, good boobs, smart but not too much, green eyes and blond hair, and all that.” Not to mention her family has money.

Maggie, however, is not what people consider pretty; instead, she has a “real good brain and a strong body.” She loves to sail and walk in the woods alone. Her only friends are two other high school misfits—Nat and Hulky—who hang out in an abandoned graveyard with her drinking cheap wine. They spend prom night perched on tombstones since she is not inclined toward frilly pink dresses—not that anyone asked her to go. Although she claims to have a hot boyfriend, no one else has met him. To Maggie’s surprise, a teary, stoned Charisse shows up at the graveyard after prom, her dress ripped by her college boyfriend. Maggie is the last person to see Charisse before she disappears. Because the cousins had a very public fight—in person at school and also on Facebook—days before the disappearance, Maggie becomes a suspect. As in any good mystery, many other explanations for the disappearance surface. Maggie’s friends and the workers in the marina all come under suspicion.

Drexel Vann, detective for the London County Sheriff’s Department, is a particularly appealing character. Maggie is surprised that a detective could look like her dentist. Through his always dirty glasses, he watches her “like an underfed hound.” She decides if he were part of the marina, he would be a “fishing boat. A small one, from Sears, not on a slip but parked on the monthly lot. Plain aluminum johnboat with a little outboard.” As Maggie gets to know the detective better, she changes her assessment. His quiet intelligence and genuine concern for those in the community offer a refreshing alternative to the aggressive personalities of law enforcement officers typically depicted in movies and books.

The novel is filled with the insights of an intelligent teen’s mind. A particularly fine example occurs as Maggie visits the graveyard alone after Charisse’s disappearance:

Big monuments and little ones stuck up from the thin grass, even tiny plaques that just said Baby. We all ended up here regardless, if you were beautiful or ugly, a baby or a young woman or a strong man, or old and curled up like a leaf—it didn’t matter, what mattered was the species continuing. That was what the urge was, the drive forward. Sex. Sex and reproduction. A few didn’t care at all, like Nat, or cared too much, like Charisse and her father, and some of us wondered if we belonged anywhere. Still the whole thing was doodlebugs just making more doodlebugs. Sex and kids and families and grandkids, the next generation pushing you out, get out of the way, let me through. . . .

Eve bit the apple and then there was death, according to the myth, and sex became something to be ashamed of. It seemed like there had to be a way to avoid the whole thing.

Since the novel centers around teens, the anxiety accompanying sexual awakening naturally frames the plot though very little graphic detail intrudes. Instead, those fears form the backdrop of everything that happens. Maggie’s voice and the setting work in tandem to maintain a disquieting atmosphere, one where it is difficult to distinguish between truth and imagination, between right and wrong. And the last page does little to relieve readers’ sense of unease. This novel shuns simple answers and Maggie will linger in your mind long after you finish reading.

Valerie Nieman is the author of four previous novels, including To the Bones, Blood Clay, Survivors, and Neena Gathering. She has also published three award-winning poetry collections. She was a 2013-2014 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as major grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her awards include the Greg Grummer, Nazim Hikmet, and Byron Herbert Reece poetry prizes.

Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte. A former professor and journalist, she now teaches creative writing at conferences and venues such as the John C. Campbell Folk School.



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