Symbols and Hidden Meanings in “Dark Water: A psychologically intense portrait of adolescent yearning and obsession” by Sara Bailey
‘You’ll never learn will you? Way out of your league, always was,’ said Dylan (a childhood boyfriend of Helena) to Phil (a former schoolmate to whom Helena begrudgingly lost her virginity). A reader is reminded six times that Helena, the protagonist of “Dark Water” by Sara Bailey, is way out of everyone’s league in Orkney, one of the islands in the Northern Isles of Scotland, situated off the north coast of Great Britain, where she spent her childhood. Since her best friend Anastasia’s disappearance in the dark water of the battleship wrecks, she left abruptly, without even attending her friend’s funeral, to live in London. Helena is forced to return home due to her father’s heart attack. The people of this island may see Helena as an intelligent, sophisticated, and elegant woman who towers over them; however, this could mean they have not caught on to what she had done before she left the island. The clues are scattered in symbols and hidden meanings through out the book.
“Dark Water” opens up with Helena lamenting about how she did not want to return to Orkney, a place rich with history and scenery, where she spent her adolescent years with her best friend Anastasia through “sick and sin.” Seen as rebels and troublemakers, the two young women bonded and became “spit sisters.” They were inseparable until Magnus, a charming and good looking young man, came between them. Helena saw him as a parasite and blamed him for what had happened to Anastasia. “He had been the snake in the grass that slithered into our paradise and ruined everything. He had pretended to be friends with us both at the start but I knew he was waiting to make his move. He had taken over Anastasia like a parasite, eating away at our friendship until it was a thin, pale vulnerable thing. If it hadn’t been for him, none of it would have happened. It was his fault.”
If it weren’t for her father’s heart attack Helena wouldn’t have returned to Orkney at all. Why wouldn’t she? Was the death or disappearance of her best friend too much for her to bear or was she trying to forget something else much darker and more sinister: herself?
Helena is not your typical protagonist. Ironically, her stepmother Kate blames the charismatic Anastasia for being a bad influence on her. “It had been difficult after Anastasia’s disappearance. For a while Kate felt that everyone was looking at them, at her; blaming her in some way for what happened. Was she to blame? Should she have seen it coming? Sometimes it felt as if their whole life revolved around that bloody girl! She caught the idea and looked round nervously, worried her thoughts might bring bad luck. But she had been a bloody bad influence. Look at what she did to Helena! Nearly destroyed the child. Made her a puppet, a plaything, a manipulative bitch! Kate caught her breath. She must stop thinking like this. It wasn’t like her to think or speak ill of the dead. She was a good person, kind. She sat on the edge of the bed and tried to calm her breathing.”
Helena herself saw her best friend as “a bitch sometimes. I wished I’d never told her about Phil. Now she knew, she would use the knowledge like a weapon. She would lash out with it because she was hurt and upset about Magnus. I gritted my teeth and refused to let myself be upset.” Yet, there was something about Anastasia that drew her in to the point of obsession. She became upset whenever Anastasia spent her time with Magnus, as if she was insanely jealous, even though she had her own boyfriend. The reader is left to decipher what type of obsession she had with her best friend.
“Dark Water” is told from two points of view: Helena’s and third person. Unfortunately, Helena is an unreliable narrator because she is cryptic or it could be, psychologically, she does not see anything wrong with her or her actions. Even at the end, she doesn’t even acknowledge her fault. She still blames others. Whether the author intended it or not but there is something about her that is unsettling. Granted there are snippets of her deep thoughts and reflections at the end of each chapter, but something is still missing. Maybe this is what makes her character chilling and haunting, her lack of moral compunction and regrets.
“Dark Water” contains ironies, symbols and double meanings. A reader should look out for them. The title itself, for example, doesn’t only suggest that it is dangerous to swim in the wreckage part of the water at night, but something took place there that only one person knows. Both Helena and Anastasia themselves are a wreck. Moreover, did two other people know what happened to Anastasia but they were just being protective of everyone in town? Unfortunately, this is subject to interpretation, as the author did not really flesh out the demeanors, attitudes, and words expressed by Phil and Dylan. Their body language and their words were just as cryptic as Helena’s.
Ms. Sara Bailey’s writing style is flawless, lyrical, and it pulls me in until the final scene. I had to read Helena’s private thoughts two to three times to understand what truly happened to Anastasia. She is so cold and blasé about what happened to her best friend that it’s unsettling.