Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick

drowning instinct

“Drowning Instinct” by Ilsa J. Bick is one of those stories that when you finish the last page, you close the book and think about it for a bit, and then you open the book and read the first pages again so you really understand what is happening at the beginning.

“Drowning Instinct” is one of those books where things are not as they appear — even after you’ve finished the book. It’s one of those books that leave the reader thinking — about the characters and about what really happened.

Jenna Lord’s life is not a pretty one. Her story is told slowly, and the story begins at the end. Because of that, it takes the reader a while to feel involved, to like Jenna, to relate to her.

But like a fire burning in a fireplace, it gets hottest once the fire has been blazing for a while, when the wood is full of bright red embers that hold and radiate the heat.Drowning Instinct builds and builds until the reader is unable to put the book down because Jenna is a wonderful, smart teenager who has been through an unimaginable childhood, and we just have to know what is going to happen now while she’s in the middle of a crisis.

Jenna’s life has been filled with abuse of many kinds. Some of the abuse is hinted at, some is simply neglect, and some takes place in the pages of the story.

Jenna begins at a new private school and is drawn to Mr. Anderson, a chemistry teacher with a lot of magnetism. He seems to understand her, and while her parents are distant and struggling with their own problems — both individually and in their marriage — Mr. Anderson is there for Jenna when she needs him.

Jenna’s mother is an alcoholic and her father is abusive, her brother is away and she is newly released from a psych ward (we’re not sure why until the end). Jenna is alone, in her life, in her home, and at school. Until she connects with a teacher.

And that is the beginning of the end.

What is magical about Jenna is her strength, her willingness to reach out and love in spite of a life that’s been pretty devoid of love.

In many ways, this story is much like Bick’s Draw the Dark, in that there is much that is not neatly tied up and presented to the reader at the end like a beautifully wrapped gift.

Rather, the reader is left with the disquieting knowledge that while there are many monsters in the story, some are more monstrous than others.

There are questions raised in the story that are not answered. Does a monster who gives up his life for his victim become less a monster? Or is that more monstrous because the victim will never forget that sacrifice and feel guilt because of it?

In Drowning Instinct, Bick uses her expertise not only as a writer, but as a child psychiatrist, in describing a cast of characters who are very emotionally damaged. And she does what she is good at — leaving the reader to put the pieces together.

For another excellent review of Drowning Instinct, visit Ashley Perez’s blog. Perez is the author of What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly.

This review is based on the uncorrected proof provided by the publisher, Carolrhoda Books, for review purposes. 

(Please NOTE: This is a reprint of a 2012 review)