In her debut novel, Things We Found When the Water Went Down, Tegan Nia Swanson asks a lot of her readers. The initial pages of the book offer a list of characters and a map, and footnotes accompany the reader throughout, but it is nevertheless easy to become disoriented in this layered, complex story that fuses the fantastic with the heartbreakingly mundane. Narrators vary. Timelines splinter and loop. Fractured events filter through shifting lenses. And yet, Swanson creates a powerful, polyphonic story of survival and healing that gives in return as much as it asks.
This intricate narrative knot is woven around Lena Bailey’s investigation of her mother Marietta’s assault on June 20, 1999. Decades later, Marietta is arrested on suspicion of the murder of local menace Hugo Mitchum. Soon after, she mysteriously disappears from the local prison.
In an attempt to cope, Lena collects information that will reveal more about her mother’s past and, she hopes, her present whereabouts. She assembles letters, journal entries, interviews, transcripts of depositions, maps, drawings, newspaper clippings, songs, and documents. Each item is meticulously labeled and presented in a nonlinear procession of evidence.
The documents Lena collects reveal not just events surrounding Marietta, but also the stifling atmosphere of Beau Caelais, a small town so viscerally rendered that it is just barely fictional. Suffering permeates this place. The town’s community revolves around the Mesabi Mine on Ruin Lake, which has come to embody its name after absorbing toxic slurry for decades. Life there is bifurcated into two eras: the World As It Was, and then, following a series of environmental collapses that devastated the surrounding Northwoods-like boreal forest, the time After. The insular, claustrophobic town itself is fraught with closed-minded corruption punctuated by misogyny, homophobia, and violence.
Lena’s mother, having always been on the geographical and social periphery of Beau Caelais, is targeted for that violence because of her environmental activism. She gathers specimens of disappearing local flora and fauna to archive the World As It Was, and speaks openly against the Mesabi Mine. Viciously assaulted, she is left for dead, floating naked and facedown in the water of the Inland Sea, the lake surrounding the isolated island she lives on. That night she discovers the World Below, inhabited by The Women Beneath, whose names describe their violent deaths: the One Whose Head Had Been Cracked Open Like a Melon, the One Who Was Left Sprawled in the Ditch Down Highway 61, the Six-Year-Old Twins Who Were Stolen, the One with a Necklace of Handprints.
The Women Beneath blend the horrific and prosaic: “They plucked at the rips in their skin, and at the ruby-blue berries growing healthy all around. They yanked loose teeth from their mouths, winced at the yellowing bruises painted across their ribs, then went back to scrubbing their socks in the water, breastfeeding their babies. They ran their fingers through clumps of hair and pulled away pieces of scalp, laughing and chatting.” They urge Marietta to bring the specimens she has collected to the World Below to preserve them, as the World As It Was “is no longer sustainable.” Marietta survives the assault, and begins to ferry her specimens to the World Below to save them. After Marietta’s disappearance, Lena inherits this task but struggles to complete it.
Lena’s journey is labyrinthine, but its twists and turns clarify rather than complicate. This is true of the book’s murder mystery—its motives and logistics slowly surface as Lena’s investigation continues—but far more compelling is how Swanson’s recursive revelations blend stinging realism with a profound metaphorical exploration of trauma.
Swanson’s unflinching, finely detailed attention to wounds and to damage—both environmental and personal—is unsettling and often uncomfortable. Marietta instructs Lena that the World Below “should reflect beauty and ugliness alike…. Bring me things that are broken.” The voluminous examples of these broken things—wounded birds, shriveled saplings, injured insects, dying mosses, mutilated women—and the lucid, steady gaze within which Swanson holds them have the cumulative effect of rebalancing the idea of worth, of reprogramming the notion of value and the concept of healing.
Marietta’s disappearance is like an open wound for Lena. By allowing Lena’s meticulous pursuit of the truth to transcend the physical and mental barriers imposed on her, Swanson creates beautiful possibilities of real healing unconstrained by the premise of “reality.” As Lena also discovers, it takes work to get there: a suspension of expectations and of disbelief, an acceptance of uncertainty, an openness to following an unconventional path through pain. But these are certainly worth the revelations they give rise to.
Things We Found When the Water Went Down
By Tegan Nia Swanson
Published December 6, 2022
Dana Dunham is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.