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Drowning Ruth

Christina Schwarz <em>Headline, 276pp, £5.99</em>

ISBN 0747264651

It is not hard to see why Drowning Ruth became a bestseller in the United States and an Oprah's Book Club choice. Firmly rooted in the values and landscape of early 20th-century rural America, this first novel revisits the archetypal Hawthornian narrative of the fallen woman.

Mathilda, pretty and impulsive, marries a nice but dim local farmer, while her more complicated sister, Amanda, leaves home to become a nurse in the city, where, naturally, she wastes no time losing her innocence. She returns to the family farm in Wisconsin a little bit bonkers and with a terrible secret to hide. Not long after, Mattie slips into the frozen lake in the middle of the night (it's easily done, after all), dragging many family mysteries to an icy grave. After her sister's unfortunate accident, Mandy sets up with her taciturn brother-in-law and her young niece, Ruth, to become a ferociously protective guardian of both the child and the past.

Where many historical novels are weighed down by detail, Drowning Ruth is drenched in the melancholic atmosphere of its setting. The claustrophobia of small-town America is set against the dangers of cosmopolitan Chicago in the aftermath of the First World War. Aunt Mandy is an ambiguous, manipulative and, at times, sinister figure, who exerts a tenacious influence over the young Ruth. Simply told by these two troubled women, the narrative moves backwards and forwards, returning always to the night of Mathilda's fatal mishap, to reveal an intriguing, if predictable, story of sibling rivalry, betrayal and repression.