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.

The Tower of Geburah

The Lord speaks so powerfully through stories! I am currently in the midst of compiling beautiful portrayals of Jesus’ Gospel, in fiction. Christians are in the habit of disseminating tracts to spread God’s Word. I would love to see impactful, truthful stories disseminated!

Published first in the Archives of Anthropos, The Tower of Geburah is the third book in the series. While I would recommend any book in the Archives, this title stands out to me for its presentation of the Gospel.

The Tower of Geburah

Series

The story follows three siblings: Wesley, Lisa and Kurt, as they travel to the world of Anthropos, where they battle an evil sorcerer with the help of Gaal (the Christ-figure).

“I’m scared. You might not want me if you knew…”

“If I knew about your sticky hands? And your smudgy face? If I knew you had said I didn’t exist? If I knew you wanted to join Hocoino and said you hated your Uncle John? I know all these things, Lisa, yet I would still like you to be my sheep. The question is, Do you want me to be your Shepherd?”

John White, The Tower of Geburah (InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. 177

While the novel, in its entirety, is an excellent read, chapter 14 (downloadable below) is the one that most captured my heart and my attention. With just a little bit of backstory, this chapter can function as a standalone presentation of the Gospel.

Backstory

Lisa enters Anthropos before her brothers and has yet to reunite with them. Upon arriving in the world, she encounters Kardia, a captive king whom she helps to free from prison– only to become captured, herself. Her captor, a jinn of multiple forms, believes she is a powerful witch. He procures for her a hot bath, clean clothes and her favorite foods, all from the longings of her heart. But none of the jinn’s magical offerings are real. The bath leaves her just as sticky as before, the clothes don’t warm her, and the food, rather than satisfying, leaves her emptier than ever. Lisa learns from the jinn that the only one who can create real things is Gaal.

Lisa also encounters the jinn’s master, an evil sorcerer named Hocoino, who convinces her to make hateful declarations against those she loves most. Shortly afterward, while in the company of the jinn, Lisa calls out to Gaal for help and finds herself surrounded by blue light. Her captor shrinks and, by following the white pigeon that appears with the light, Lisa makes her escape.

Now, in chapter 14, “The Bridge across the Chasm,” Lisa treks through a network of tunnels and comes face-to-face with the mysterious and powerful Gaal. He asks Lisa if she would like him to be her shepherd, and she is immediately aware that she would like this, but she is both guilty and dirty. Moreover, a wide and frightening chasm separates her from Gaal.

From The Tower of Geburah by John White. Copyright (c) 1978 by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of the United States of America. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60559. www.ivpress.com

To purchase the full book, please visit The Tower of Geburah – InterVarsity Press

Life Flight (Book Review)

I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. Opinions expressed are my own.

Scripture Connection

In the LORD I take refuge. How then can you say to me: “Flee like a bird to your mountain…”

Psalm 11:1

Spiritual Themes

The characters consistently pray, throughout the book. These tend to be short prayers for safety or for God’s help in the investigation. And we definitely see God answering by protecting Penny and Holt!

I chose the verse from Psalm 11, because the characters consistently turn to God when they are in trouble and when they need courage. Even in scary situations, they persevere and they do so with an awareness that God is in control. For example, Holt prays that God will reveal what they need to know, to catch the killer.

There are also a few comments/discussions about the way God responds to prayer. It’s not always in the way we hope or expect, but He does listen. Along this line, there are some instances of thanking God after the prayers of protection, but I would have liked to see more of this.

Overall, it was refreshing Christian characters who acted like Christians. For me, though, the spiritual content was not particularly moving/insightful.

Introduction to the Author

I’ve seen enough Lynette Eason titles to know that she’s a pretty big name in the genre, but this is my first time actually reading one of her books. The experience was very enjoyable and I’d definitely like to read more of her books.

I received this book along with Sunrise by Susan May Warren (and The Girl who Could Breathe Underwater, by Erin Bartels). Given the presence of a helicopter on the cover of this one, and a little plane on the cover of the other book, I was concerned that these books would be really similar. (I don’t read many books about pilots, haha). So, I was very happy to learn that the pilot character was pretty much the only similarity between the two.

What I Liked

So many of my reviews of Christian books include a disclaimer for romantic content. In addition to the fact that I don’t think that’s necessary in this case (hooray!!), there were several things that I really appreciated.

First, the basis of Penny and Holt’s relationship was refreshing. I’ve seen a lot of books where the main characters meet and fall in love in the course of the novel, or where they reunite after a break-up (and long absence). In this case, Penny and Holt have already gone out together a few times, before the book begins. So, it’s already been established that the characters are interested in each other, making for a more realistic romance. As a reader, I got to watch the two fall in love, but in a way that wasn’t rushed, nor burdened with relationship baggage (Plus, it was nice that the dating couple didn’t break up in favor of the girl discovering the new, interesting guy that “gets her.” That’s often what happens to the first love interest, in romances).

I so appreciate that Eason doesn’t imply that a person can fill or complete another person. This is something else that I see all-too-frequently in romance novels, and I was so glad that Eason doesn’t do this! Instead, the characters appreciate that God brought them together and are prepared to see what He has next, for them.

The suspense plot line was intriguing, with some unexpected plot developments. This book kept me on my toes, which is something I enjoy in this genre.

I really enjoyed Penny’s characterization. She is undoubtedly a strong woman, who is willing to risk her life to protect those she loves most. At the same time, she’s not too proud to accept help and protection from others. I considered her to be a very likeable character.

The friendship between Penny, Julianna and Grace was beautiful. I appreciate that Eason portrays the importance of friendship, in addition to writing a romantic story. These girls have known each other for a long time and continue to take care of one another.

Content Notes

As mentioned above, I am so happy not to have a disclaimer about the romance. There are a few kissing scenes, but I would describe these as tasteful and sweet.

There is some violence, including attack and self-defense. There’s also some really intense subject matter, since the book is about a woman-hating serial killer.

There are a couple short segments from the perspective of the serial killer, but there’s nothing graphic in these moments.

Additional Consideration

The below points may seem a bit “nit picky.” I do want to note that it is only because this book was SO GOOD that I have the luxury of observing the following:

Even before I made the decision to focus my reading on Christian titles, one thing I’ve felt convicted about is reading books with content I wouldn’t otherwise read, simply because of their “Christian” label. For instance, Ted Dekker is one of my very favorite authors and writes some REALLY powerful books. However, some of his titles are pretty much “horror,” and I recognized that I wouldn’t have touched them, if they weren’t “Christian.” I’ve decided it’s not a good idea for me to reread those.

With that said, Life Flight is nowhere near comparable with the intensity in some of Dekker’s more intense works. The “check” I have is intrigue for the sake of intrigue, because I didn’t really see a big statement about the light overpowering the darkness. While I don’t really see a lot of specifically “objectionable” content, I would have really liked to see a clearer purpose behind the inclusion of the dark elements. (This is something I very much see in Dekker’s works, especially the less horror-y ones.)

Recommendation Status

Although I wouldn’t have minded more emphasis on the spiritual content, this is a book I really enjoyed. The serial killer investigation may be intense for certain readers, but I was so gratified to see Eason’s treatment of the romantic relationship.