When Jane Douglas returns to the Shetland Islands, she thinks she has escaped the dark shadows of her childhood. She carves out a simple life on the bleak, windswept island, working at the salmon fishery and spending quiet evenings at home. And for the first time in her life, she’s happy.

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Then the body of Jane’s long-missing mother is found in a flooded quarry. Her mother disappeared when Jane was a teenager, following the death of Jane’s baby brother. Jane has spent her life running from her past, living in fear that she has inherited her mother’s demons. Now, Jane must face what actually happened on that fateful, tragic day twenty years ago…

My Review

What a stunning book. Beautifully written and so emotional. How it triggered my own personal memories, the parallels with my childhood and my mother’s mental illness (*see below); the fears of it being inherited, genetic.

Jane is not always the easiest person to like. She works in a mind-numbing job in a salmon processing factory. All she has to do is chop the heads off the fish. She lives alone in a run-down caravan even though she owns the cottage nearby. It has too many memories and has been left to fall to pieces. She has a lovely boyfriend called Mike whom she loves dearly, but he knows little of her past life. She is very closed about her childhood. We know it was traumatic and her problems revolved around her mother’s progressive illness and the death of her little brother.

Her mother Sylvia disappeared straight after her brother died and her body was never found – until now. Then Jane discovers her mother’s diaries and starts reading. This part was the most harrowing. We learn how Sylvia met Bobby at a wake, fell pregnant, had Jane (originally called Hannah – she changed her name) and moved from her home in Devon to the Shetlands. Bobby worked on the oil rigs and was away for two weeks at a time, leaving Sylvia lonely and unable to cope with a new baby.

The more Jane reads, the more she learns the truth about what really happened, the lies Bobby told, the death of her brother and why her mother disappeared. We understand the reasons Jane won’t live in the cottage and also what happened with next-door neighbour Maggie and her daughter Laura.

It’s a brilliant book. From about half-way through I couldn’t stop reading, till I finished at one in the morning. It became personal, even though my mother didn’t suffer from postpartum psychosis, but her behaviour was similar at times. And the fear of unlikely things happening I can understand – when my first child was a few weeks old I used to imagine someone would climb in through the window in the night and steal him away. And while I didn’t worry about nuclear war, I know others who did.

*The constant reminders of my mother. Her chronic anxiety and agoraphobia, getting worse with each child. The one she lost before I was born. The barbiturates, the ‘dolls’ she was weaned off after 29 years in a ‘mental hospital’, then the Valium she often took too much of. The lobotomy they put her through in the 1950s and the electric shock treatment. How it was different back then. The taking to her bed and staying there for eight years. And the what-ifs that led to my fear of heights. Why we couldn’t leave her alone. Would it be passed to me? I understand Jane and her fears. I understand totally.

Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.

About the Author

Rebecca Pert was born in 1990, the youngest of four siblings. She grew up in a small town in Devon before attending Cardiff University, where she received an MA in Creative Writing. Rebecca was the winner of the first Cheltenham Festival First Novel Competition in 2018. She now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband, son and dog. Still Water is Rebecca’s first novel.

From Rebecca

Dear reader

Still Water came about in an unusual way. In 2018 I submitted the first three chapters of a fledgling novel, about a thalidomide survivor living on the Shetland Islands, to the Cheltenham Literature Festival’s First Novel competition. The winner would receive a £10,000 advance, a publishing contract with The Borough Press, and representation from LBA Books. I printed off my chapters, stapled them, stuck them in an envelope and sent them off. A few months came and went. And then, one grey Friday in February, sitting at my desk in the library where I worked, I got an email telling me that I’d won. I stared at the screen, feeling goosebumps prickle all over my body, reading the words over and over again. I wanted to shout for joy but couldn’t, obviously, because I was in a library. So I went and shut myself in an office and called my husband and parents instead and then had a little cry.

‘I had to submit the completed manuscript by August that year. I thought I could do it. I’d recently found out I was pregnant, and the baby was due around the same time as the novel, so I planned on taking early maternity leave in order to have a few months to write the book before the baby arrived.

‘I wrote like a fiend right up until the last minute – I was literally in labour when I submitted the manuscript, bouncing on a birthing ball as I pressed ‘send’ on the email to the publishers. My son arrived about 24 hours later. Then came feedback, and the structural edit. There was a lot of work that needed to be done. No problem, I thought. I’ll just work while the baby sleeps. Ha!

‘My son was absolutely angelic in every single way except that he just didn’t sleep. I was blissfully happy, in love with my baby, high on post-birth oxytocin, but I was also bone-achingly exhausted. Every time he slept, I’d fight the urge to doze off and instead would open the laptop and try to work on my manuscript. It was a losing battle. The more I worked on the story the more it fell apart. I got increasingly frustrated and exhausted and at one point I wrote an email to my editor telling her I was sorry, but I was giving up. I couldn’t write the book. Luckily, my husband convinced me not to hit send. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

‘Gradually, my son got bigger. Gradually, he started to sleep longer. Gradually, it became obvious that the story I’d been trying to write wasn’t working. It just wasn’t talking to me anymore. And so I ripped it up and started again from scratch. This time the words just flowed – like water – and the story took on a different focus: motherhood, and specifically my darkest fears and anxieties about motherhood. All the stuff that had been percolating in my mind during those sleep-deprived months had somehow formed into a narrative, black and hard. I suddenly had something to say. I wanted to talk about what frightened me the most. Although the story is dark, I think it’s important to shed light on maternal mental health in a sensitive and compassionate way, so I hope I have achieved this in Still Water.

‘It still seems so strange to me that people – strangers – are reading this story which has been brewing in my head for so long. I didn’t share it with a soul, except my editor, the entire time I was working on it, and now it’s out there in the world. I know that’s the whole point of being an author, but it’s still an odd feeling. I really hope you enjoy Still Water.’

Thank you

Rebecca

1 Comment on “Still Water by Rebecca Pert

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