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The Dark Pull of Water: 6 watery scenes in literature

by Sharon Bolton

“Life is like a river. Sometimes it sweeps you gently along, and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere.” – Emma Smith.

For centuries, writers have been fascinated by water, have sought to capture on page the essence of a turbulent sea, a vast, mirrored lake, an ancient, secretive  river;  and none more so than crime writers, for whom a deep, dark watercourse can be a great friend. Water features in most of my books: the turbulent seas around the Shetland Islands in Sacrifice, the constantly trickling underground streams of Awakening, and of course the mighty River Thames, practically a character in its own right in Now You See Me, If Snow Hadn’t Fallen, Like This, For Ever and A Dark and Twisted Tide. As the latest of these is published in paperback, I’ve been thinking about my favourite watery scenes from literature.

‘Allied to the bottom of the river, rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered, and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it obviously were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought.’
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens.

The opening of one of my favourite Dickens’ novels (and a great influence behind A Dark and Twisted Tide) shows Lizzie Hexam and her father in a rowing boat on the Thames at high tide. Lizzie is physically very strong, but her heart is full of dread at the grim task she’s forced to undertake, and Dickens captures so well the dark and deadly pull of the river in the midst of the filthy Victorian city. The purpose simply couldn’t be darker, because Hexam father and daughter make their living by pulling dead bodies from the river.

‘A wild froth of water was building up beneath him. The gates juddered, the gap widening, inch by inch.’
Dead Man’s Grip, Peter James.

This is taken from the heart-stopping climax of James’ seventh Roy Grace book. The scene is a great sea lock, the gates of which are about to open. I can’t say more without massive spoilers; suffice it to say that I still can’t think of this scene without shuddering.

‘She peered out at the whirling curtain of snow. They were moving, had been moving for some time, and had reached a bend in the river where a high bank or trees must be sheltering them a little.’
The Death Maze, Ariana Franklin.

Adelia Aguilar and Rowley Picot are prisoners of Queen Eleanor (rebellious wife of Henry II) and being taken to Oxford by boat along the near-frozen River Thames. The cold is merciless, the river a savage enemy, the company hardly know whether they will survive the journey. Adelia is close to despair, even before Rowley, after uttering one of the most romantic lines ever to appear in literature, dives head first into the water.

‘We called it the “River of Silence”; for there seemed to be a hushing influence in its flow. No murmur arose from its bed, and so gently it wandered along, that the pearly pebbles upon which we loved to gaze, far down within its bosom, stirred not at all, but lay in a motionless content, each in its own old station, shining on gloriously forever.’
Eleonora, Edgar Allan Poe

I’m not a great fan of Poe, or of the short story format, but one has to admire his ability to conjure up the darkest and most beautiful of atmospheres. This story, being essentially practical, and with an unusually happy ending, just about earns a place here.

‘Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front.’
The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of my favourite books of all time, and I love the short period of peace and safety the fellowship enjoy on the river of Anduin: before they step back on shore and all hell kicks loose again.
And finally, a little offering of my own:

‘The tide creeps in. It comes slowly at first, like a predatory animal short on conviction. At first, the only sign of the water’s approach is an almost imperceptible movement of the sand. Suddenly it’s not as solid as it was. It’s relaxed into its component parts, separating, starting to get – floaty.’

A Dark and Twisted Tide – Sharon Bolton. Out now in paperback, from all good bookshops and larger supermarkets.

Feature image: ‘Explored: Burning Water and Sky / Brennendes Wasser und Himmel’, © Bernhard Friess. Image taken from Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/oNYyuF) and used under CC.

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