The Girl who Could Breathe Underwater (Book Review)

  • Author: Erin Bartels
  • Publisher: Revell (Baker Book House)
  • Purchase Now
  • Synopsis: After the release of her semi-autobiographical novel, Kendra returns to her late grandpa’s summer home, where she attempts to write a follow-up book—and prove that she had a right to pen the original.
  • Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. Opinions expressed are my own.

Due to the nature of the content in this book, I feel that it is very important to provide an honest and in-depth exploration of the book’s themes, in my review. However, doing so will require quite a few spoilers. For this reason, I’m formatting this review a bit differently than usual, with a brief non-spoilery section, followed by a clearly labeled spoiler section.

Christian Themes

Without getting too spoilery, I think it’s only fair for readers to know that this book deals deeply with the topic of sexual assault.

I find it refreshing that a Christian publishing house has published a work on this theme— a theme that deserves attention, especially amongst Christians. Social justice is such an important theme in the Bible, which is so frequently overlooked in the Western church. Christ’s body is absolutely called to care for these groups of people, with the same tenderness and compassion and Christ. All too often, sexual abuse is treated by the church as a taboo topic, which means alienating those most in need of comfort. I believe we need much more Christian literature that addresses this form of trauma.

With that said, the book itself doesn’t contain overt Christian elements. It is the Author’s Note that introduces the healing and redemption that can be found in Jesus. “God exchanges His beauty for our ashes, His hope for our despair, His glory for our shame,” Bartels writes, “He is in the business of redemption. And He can redeem your story.” What a much-needed message of truth!

We also see evidence of a character forgiving someone who has deeply hurt her– even when he hasn’t shown a lot of remorse– amidst the very messy process of healing.

Writing Style / Structure

This is my first time reading a novel by Erin Bartels, and I was really impressed with her skills as a writer!

Bartels teases out the narrative by means of a nonlinear structure, allowing the events of the past to unfold over the backdrop of the present.

Bartels also employs a first-person speaker who constantly addresses a second-person “you”— another character in the novel. This is, if not the first, one of the few times I’ve seen this maintained throughout an entire book. And Bartels does so masterfully.

The fact that Bartels can pull off a nonlinear timeline, plus a second-person narration, really attests to her craftsmanship as an author.

Approach to Content

Thematically, The Girl who Could Breathe Underwater is a really difficult book. The story doesn’t simply include sexual abuse– it’s the cornerstone of the premise, as the main character spends the entire novel processing and healing from multiple traumatic experiences. For this reason, it’s not a title I would recommend lightly.

Kendra, the protagonist, is a thoroughly human character and her thoughts and actions, rather than being prescriptive, paint a realistic portrait of what the healing process looks like. With that said, there are a few words of caution I would provide (see below, in the more “spoilery” section) for readers who are also healing from sexual trauma. Ultimately, I feel the need to explore some of the nuances of the text, without acutally offering a recommendation status for this particular title.

Personal Connection / Disclaimer

As mentioned above, I am so glad to see a Christian-published novel that interacts so deeply with the theme of sexual assault. This book opens the door to some very important, meaningful conversations, and I believe that the content covered strongly merits discussion.

With that said, I want to be clear that I have not personally experienced the kinds of trauma described in the book. My experience is secondhand, hearing the stories of someone I love very much, and occasionally sitting with her in the process. The comments I’ll be making below reflect this perspective. Also of note, my discussion will not delve into the entirety of the plot (for instance, I am not addressing Bartels’ overall treatment of the main friendship in the story) but will focus on my favorite and least favorite elements, although these may fall more into “subplot” categories.

Thematic Discussion

SPOILERS BELOW


At some points in Kendra’s journey, I wanted to cheer for her insights. At others, I felt concerned on behalf of readers who are healing from their own experiences of assault, so I would like to detail each of these moments, here.

Moments I Resonated With

Upon confronting her abuser, Kendra learns that the young man who repeatedly raped her had his own history of sexual abuse, which involved being trafficked from a young age. This is such an unspeakably horrific thing for a child to experience, and Bartels certainly makes that abundantly clear. At the same time, she ALSO makes it clear that these experiences do not justify the rapist’s treatment of the protagonist.

Bartels also points out that there are two ways to respond to abuse: choose to become an abuser, or do everything in your power to protect others from going through the same thing you went through. While Kendra demonstrates compassion for her abuser, she also recognizes that his history does not change the fact that he chose to carry out further violence.

I was so glad that Bartels did not perpetuate the harmful expectation that we “understand” people’s decision to abuse others, simply because the perpetrators experienced abuse, themselves. My mom and I have discussed the harmfulness of the adage “hurt people hurt people,” which excuses individual choices. I really appreciate that Bartels alluded to the fact that hurt people can choose not to hurt people, while also demonstrating compassion for each person who was hurt, and still holding the rapist accountable for his actions.

A Theme that Made me Uncomfortable

Based on the letter she has received from a Very Disappointed Reader, Kendra spends the first part of the novel questioning the validity of her own memory of the abuse, which is something I understand. It can be easier to try to find a way to blame oneself in a situation than to acknowledge one’s own powerlessness.

Upon confronting her abuser, Kendra feels vindicated: things really did happen the way she remembers. She later asks her abuser why he did the things he did, and then learns (as referenced above) about his own tragic childhood.

Throughout the story, Kendraa has been battling with the question of whether or not she had the right to write her book and, with Tyler’s disclosure of his own history, Kendra feels some degree of remorse for the way she portrayed him. She mentions that, if she had known his story, she would have written her book differently. She also notes that she wished she had done more, in the book, to protect his family.

While I certainly appreciate where Kendra is coming from, and I think her compassion is beautiful, I also feel concerned for readers who may be considering bringing their own stories to the light. Kendra grapples with this question (whether or not she had a right to share) throughout the book, and ultimately seems to decide that was justified in sharing, but could have done so in a better way.

Insofar as Bartels is writing a character with a very specific experience, I get it. As I mentined above, I was very impressed with the authenticity of the messiness of the healing process. The novel feels so realistic and true-to-life (almost like a nonfiction memoir) and, once again, I believe it is intended as a portrait of healing, not a prescription for it. Bartels discusses this very clearly, in the Author’s Note. Even so, I would be very reticent to recommend this title to someone who, like Kendra, felt the need to write about her experiences of assault, as I believe this novel could detract them from doing so.

Treatment of Suicide

My other concern is about the treatment of suicide. Big spoiler (sorry!): Kendra learns that the letter from the Very Disappointed Reader was actually a suicide note, causing Kendra to feel responsible for the reader’s death. While another of the characters does combat this notion, I’m very wary of narratives that seem to attribute responsibility to another person in the event of suicide. Media has popularized this notion (for instance, with the 13 Reasons Why series) and I’ve observed this pervasive idea that we are responsible for other people’s mental health– which can quickly go from care to codependency. This is not exactly a major plot point, nor do I think the author has any intention of promoting codependency, but I still think this part of the story merits a content note.

Additional Notes Regarding Content

Kendra processes multiple experiences of sexual assault, which began in her adolescence, throughout the book. One scene, in particular, is a bit graphic in nature. The novel also touches on the theme of incest, as well as unexpected paternity. Suicide also plays a somewhat significant role in the novel, although this is introduced later on.

Published by Stephanie Agnes-Crockett

Hi, there! My name is Stephanie and I’m a Fresno, CA native. After studying at Biola University, I received my MLIS (Masters in Library Science) from San Jose State University. I live with my mom, poet Kimberly Vargas Agnese, and serve as her unofficial agent. We reside at MeadowArc, a food forest in its infancy. I am called to, and passionate about, purity. In fact, the name Agnes means “pure.” Before I was born, my mom felt led to include the name Agnes in her name, and in the names of her children. My full, hyphenated name includes 26 letters (but not the whole alphabet).

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