The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

Originally published in 1997 (Abacus), The Weight of Water is a novel about a crime – not that I was expecting it to be when I picked it up, long-neglected, from a bookshelf. The crime in question is a real one from the nineteenth century, in which two Norwegian women were killed on the island of Smuttynose, one of the tiny Shoal islands off the coast of New Hampshire. One element of Anita Shreve’s novel is her account of this crime (from historical records) as well as her own (fictional) reinterpretation of what actually happened. The other element is a modern story – that of Jean, a photojournalist, who is sent on assignment to Smuttynose to record the site of the terrible historical events, and through whose eyes we learn the author’s alternative history of events. Jean embarks on her task via a boat owned by her brother-in-law Rich, together with her husband Thomas and 5-year-old daughter Billie, and Rich’s attractive but slightly sinister girlfriend Adaline. There are masses of unspoken tensions between all these enigmatically presented adults; as their claustrophobic voyage continues, we realise that some kind of tragedy is going to ensue, in parallel with Jean’s research into the old crime.

As usual with Anita Shreve, the book is well written and therefore rewarding to read. However, I found myself somewhat in a “so what” mode at the end of it all. I had little patience with the modern, unlikeable collection of adults, who seemed selfish in their materially comfortable lives as well as overly keen on keeping all their tensions and moods hidden, when a few conversations would have cleared the air (and probably averted future drama). Thomas in particular is unpleasant, and though the author does a reasonable job at showing why Jean might have married him (and, because of Billie, stayed with him?), I find it hard to see why she’d put up with his weaknesses and lies. The older story is most interesting in its account of the privations of existence among the impoverished fisher-families of Norway, and their attempts to emigrate to America in search of a better lot. Similarly, the accounts of the lives of these people, particularly the central character, Maren, on the bleak, tiny island of Smuttynose really do come alive. The stories of the murders, both true and fictional, are standard fare – one is presented with a fait accompli in both accounts, rather than being left with much insight. And the tragic ending of the modern story is both too contrived and too abrupt.

The novel was apparently very successful, having been shortlisted for the Orange prize that year and, in 2000, being made into a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. (See Wikipedia.) I see that the film is distinguished by the presence of Elizabeth Hurley in the role of Adaline!

Read reviews of the novel at: Mostly Fiction (with some fascinating local detail), The Book Haven,, and Brothers Judd.

I had evidently purchased this book from a sale or bargain bin (from its cover price sticker), too many years ago to remember for sure.

4 thoughts on “The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

  1. Maxine – Thanks, as ever, for your insightful review. I’ve more than once found in books like this that the historical crime that the modern-day investigators are looking into is more interesting than the modern-day people. You’ve also hit on something that’s important to me: I like insight into the characters, too. I like to be able to understand what drives people to do things, and it sounds like you didn’t quite find that here.

  2. I remember that we read this with my book club when it came out but I can’t remember a single thing about it – I don’t even have ratings from those days so I don’t know if I liked it or not. Wish I’d had a book blog since birth 🙂

  3. Pingback: Body Surfing by Anita Shreve | Petrona

Comments are closed.