Regina Reviews on Clearwater

Reviewed by: Devin Pacholik

Sometimes we remember the past with idyllic clarity, while other times we brace ourselves against the slow erosion of trauma. As we grow, our histories pour forth around us, and the seemingly insignificant events and confounding trials we collect give us something to stand on.

Kim McCullough’s Clearwater is a novel about romantic yearning, family devastation and growing up through mental agony.

When Claire Sullivan moves to Clearwater Lake in Northern Manitoba with her mother and twin brother and sister, Daniel and Leah, she meets Jeff Carson. Jeff is a half-native boy with a penchant for painting. He lives in the duplex next door.

Claire and Jeff share a flimsy wall between their rooms and the same unspoken need to flourish beyond their marginal teenage years.

The question is, during the course of their development as trials flood around them, will they have enough good ground to stand on?

Claire and Jeff have an uneasy relationship that begins after Claire helps the 16-year-old fix his motorcycle. Jeff takes Claire for a ride, and they explore a closed residential school in the area. From the beginning, Clearwater revels in the danger of romance and inquisition.

The narration switches back and forth from Jeff and Claire’s perspectives and also to third person. The characters’ divergent thoughts, assumptions and the limitations of the third-person narrator convey the unease of young-adult minds and their fascination for emotional connection.

Emotional connection is especially important as the characters face disillusioning struggles while growing up together: Jeff’s father is an abusive alcoholic; Claire’s sister, Leah, suffers from debilitating depression; and, early on, Jeff swims against an undercurrent of racism. Claire and Jeff also confront real violence, namely when Claire’s sister is raped.

As both Jeff and Claire’s families become unhinged throughout the course of Clearwater, the two leave their lake lives behind. Jeff’s pursuits as a painter dissolve along with the hope of stability.

Clearwater takes the reader to several cities and locations, as Claire and Jeff circle around the possibility of being together and the trauma of a suicide that keeps them apart. Upon meeting Jeff after some years of being separated, Claire thinks, “It’s strange, straddling past and present. But neither one of us is the same as we were.”

Claire and Jeff can’t seem to come to terms with their shared past, emotions and cravings, all of which build into astonishing and hopeful crescendos.

Clearwater tests the possibilities of familial and romantic restraint and longing. It is a psychological story borne from convoluted tragedies. McCullough’s characters gasp and claw for breath in Clearwater; their struggles are vivid and wondrous.

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