Audiobook Review: The Weight of Water

Following my post for Sea Glass by Anita Shreve and where I made the comment this being my first Shreve book, a recommendation (thanks Mrs. P!) to read “The Weight of Water”  was made, for it was one of the best books she ever read.  Well, of course, we’re aren’t the type to turn down a recommendation like that! And lo and behold, our public library had it available in audiobook.

Anita Shreve’s writing is like a gift to us wouldn’t you say? Like poetry, her simple and sometimes brisk words can convey such emotion, detail and meaning so exquisitely. I almost fell in to a trance each day listening to this superb story.

The Weight of Water is actually an interwoven tale of two women, more than a century apart, each ultimately undone by their resentment and jealousy.

The contemporary story concerns Jean, she is on a photography assignment to sail to Smuttynose Island, off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine so she can photograph the scene of a murder that took place on that island 150 years earlier. Jean sails with her husband and daughter, sailing with his brother and the brother’s girlfriend. The tension in the close quarters of the people on the boat is revealed to the reader immediately through the description of the tight and cramped space and tight conversational exchanges. Jean suspects her husband is having an affair with his brother’s girlfriend. The point where Jean first clues in to this possibility is where I found Shreve’s beautiful ability to pinpoint with certainty the most believable emotion and tension. It was, perhaps, my favourite part during the contemporary part of the story. Jean is overcome by her jealousy of Adeline and in a moment during a fierce storm, her jealousy pushes her to an event which results in a devestating and life-altering mistake.

The historical story, (the best part of this story, in my opinion, and based on real events) is in regards to murders of two women on Smuttynose which occurred in 1873, and is revealed through the memoir of Maren Hontvet (the sole survivor) and also through trial transcripts. Jean becomes engrossed in this memoir, which has never been found before, and is written in Maren’s hand and provides a detailed account of how she came to leave Norway, leave her beloved brother and older sister and come to the Isles of Shoals with her new husband.  One night, while the men were fishing and couldn’t get home, two of the women in the house were murdered with an ax, one is found the next morning hiding in a cave. (The house is the only one on the island.)

Jean would take from the archives a file from the library’s unorganized archival collection–it is this file which contains the truth about the murders, as recounted by Maren. Here, Shreve does a marvelous job of capturing the essence and sparseness of Maren’s arrival and her new life in the 1870s, and of the immigrant experience upon first arrival to this island of rock. The story unfolds with Maren’s summary of her upbringing in Norway and her life on Smuttynose up to and ultimately including the night of the murders.

I must say you do begin to predict how it is going to end, this does not come as a shocking twist, but this is not the point of it, it is simply the flow and beauty of the language Shreve uses and the history and story as told by Maren that is exquisite and so filled with emotion. I enjoyed every moment of it. A very satisfying read. 4 stars.

You can read real accounts of the murders here and here.

The Hontvet House on Smuttynose Island