The Drowning Kind Is an Original Modern Fairy Tale

DKFI 2: "standing in the magic pool" by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓ is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Jennifer McMahon’s The Drowning Kind is a modern-day fairy tale. It’s an original take on a classic theme: be careful what you wish for. McMahon has crafted a story where mythology exists alongside reality. She takes the reader smoothly in and out of reality through the entire book and spins a mesmerizing tale with poetic prose that breathes life into her story.

The Drowning Kind tells the tale of a modern dysfunctional family. Her story centers around social worker Jackie Metcalf AKA Jax and her older sister, Lexie. As children, they enjoyed spending summers at their grandmother’s house, Sparrow Crest, which their father calls “Dracula’s castle.” McMahon creates a creepy environment and a sense of foreboding from the beginning. 

Jax recalls her grandmother’s strange swimming pool. It’s not the typical inground pools people have in their yards with clear, chlorinated water. The pool is filled with unfiltered spring water and is described as black, frigid, and sometimes filled with weeds. Jax is haunted by the image of Rita, their grandmother’s sister, who drowned in the pool. Jax always thought the pool was creepy, but Lexie could spend hours in it.

Jax has a career as a social worker specializing in cases of troubled children. During the course of the book, Jax calls on her training as a counselor to deal with her dysfunctional family. Instead of just giving in to dysfunction and perhaps being a completely toxic person herself or ignoring it entirely, Jax studied psychology. It seems as if she did it as a way to understand her family and cope more effectively. She may have even done it as a preventative measure to keep from going over the edge, herself. McMahon explores the family in-depth, touching on all of the emotions associated with dysfunctional families—anger, resentment, and guilt

At the beginning of the story, their grandmother has been dead for a year, and Lexie inherited her house.

A woman lays back, floating in a pool looking up.
“Drama” by bafdias is licensed under CC BY 2.0

McMahon gives the reader enough information without going off on tangents and creates suspense that keeps the pages turning. Since their grandmother’s death, the two have been estranged. Lexie occasionally leaves strange messages for Jax which she’s been ignoring. At the beginning of the story, Jax comes home to find yet another one and doesn’t call Lexie back. When Jax tries reaching out to Lexi, she finds out that Lexi’s dead. She drowned in the pool.

In The Drowning Kind, water is a common image, in tune with the title of the book. Water is presented as threatening and potentially dangerous but also as something comforting. It’s also an environment that Lexie is described as being at home in. Jax even wonders when they were children if Lexie had gills somewhere that no one could see. Their grandmother’s pool is a dark, cold and dangerous place to Jax while Lexie seemed at home in it. One of Jax’s patients also draws a picture of a turbulent sea with a figure dressed like Jax in the water and a large, dark threatening-looking fish heading toward her. The positive image of water is of Jax taking a warm bath after listening to Lexie’s numerous bizarre messages. She dunks her head under the water as a way to distance herself—to drown everything out.

Water is also considered symbolic of deep emotions and the subconscious. The Drowning Kind deeply explores the emotions of a dysfunctional family coping with addiction and mental illness. McMahon explores all of the emotions we tend to suppress in toxic family dynamics. The subconscious is associated with dreams. McMahon creates a dreamlike atmosphere where the reader begins to question Jax’s reality or sense of reality.

Jax describes feeling resentment for Lexi. Growing up, Lexi, was the better at everything, and Jax thought that everyone seemed to like and trust her more. She describes how Lexi approached everything with an obsessive focus until she succeeded and moved on to the next thing. On the other hand, Jax describes feeling difficulty accomplishing anything. Naturally, Jax felt jealousy and resentment towards her sister. Jax later feels guilty for Lexie’s death.

In The Drowning Kind, McMahon sets up a mysterious situation with possible ties to the past, sowing the seeds for an interesting backstory. McMahon uses flashbacks back to the 1920s to slowly reveal the background of the house and the pool. As soon as I hit the chapters flashing back in time, I eagerly read them for possible clues.

A woman stands in a natural pool of spring water and shoots a serious look towards the camera.
“Magic waters” by bafdias is licensed under CC BY 2.0

McMahon’s travels through time aren’t distracting or frustrating. I didn’t consider it an interruption but welcomed it as a possible way to provide clues or answers for the current situation in the plot. 

Jax finds notes and research that Lexi compiled about the family and the history of Sparrow Crest.  She begins to have odd experiences while staying at Sparrow Crest, such as hearing footsteps in the hallways at night. She notes the bizarre behavior of family members and acquaintances. However, the reader is made aware of a history of mental illness with not only Lexi but also their father, who’s staying at the house with Jax. So, the reader is left to question what exactly is going on.  Are her relatives seeing things in the mysterious pool? Are Jax’s own experiences part of an elaborate hoax? Is Jax mentally ill, also, and can we trust her perceptions as the narrator?

The counselor in Jax intervenes to drag the reader back to reality before another strange event occurs. She tries to inject reason among a group of people who have a history of being completely off-kilter. Eventually, Jax decides to push Lexie’s mental illness aside and take a serious look through her sister’s notes. The mystery surrounding the mysterious pool and Sparrows Crest begins to unravel.

The Drowning Kind has a rich fairytale-like atmosphere with rose gardens and sparkling ballrooms. McMahon adds in dashes of foreboding at just the right moments—something moving beneath the surface of the black water, cryptic messages and odd notes, and a haunted house atmosphere of visions and mysterious noises. She creates vivid imagery both magical and disturbing.

The characters and story are completely original. The story twists and turns at all of the right points. The ending is unpredictable but doesn’t come out of nowhere.

If you like fairy tales or mythology, or supernatural horror with realistically flawed characters, add Jennifer McMahon’s The Drowning Kind to your reading list.

According to her bio page on her website, New York Times best-selling author Jennifer McMahon has written several suspense novels including The Winter People (2014) and The Invited (2019). She’s written about everything from ghosts and serial killers to “evil fairy kings and kidnapping rabbits.”

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Written by MD Bastek

Just a person who loves horror and writes about unusual things

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