Standing Water, the debut novel by Terri Armstrong, is a deeply moving work. Armstrong, a UEA alumnus, won the 2010 Yeovil prize for it pre-publication, and from her writing style and completely believable characters, it is easy to see why.
The novel focuses on the return of Dom Connor, an Australian who has been living in England, to his family farm near the fictional town of Marrup. When he returns, he finds the farm a victim of a major drought and the town nearly deserted. He also finds that his brother Neal no longer wants to speak to him and is trying to maintain the illusion that nothing is wrong with the farm he has tended for so long, at the expense of his wife Hester’s happiness.
Loss is a major theme in Standing Water. Dom returns to Marrup for his mother’s funeral, but he misses it by a day. The potential loss of the farm hangs over the story, increasing the already obvious tensions between characters to near breaking point. Other characters, such as Andy, Dom’s old friend, have already lost their connections to family and friends. In addition to loss, death characterises this book; when Dom drives into Marrup the first thing he does is accidentally run over a neighbour’s dog.
Armstrong’s powerful use of these themes shows how the characters, especially those in Marrup, have become hardened to emotion. This, along with the extremely vivid descriptions of the heat and the flies, creates an incredibly bleak feeling. The characters seem trapped in an ultimately hostile little town.
Nonetheless, there are more hopeful elements to Standing Water. Both Dom and Andy, re-entering Marrup from cities with their own disappointments, work as forces for change in their own small ways. The tensions of the novel mostly sit around this work, will the inhabitants of Marrup accept change, or will they reject Dom and Andy altogether?
This is a beautifully written book with profound insights on the nature of family and friendships. The descriptions of rural Australia are completely engrossing, from the heat and the discomfort to the tree branches covered in cockatoos. Although thoroughly engaging, it is perhaps a little too bleak to be really enjoyable.