Bailey and her young sister, Tilly, have been taken by their Gran to multi-generational Pine Hills Resort to try and get over a traumatic experience. They could stay in a cabin together, but Bailey opts for splitting up by demographic, and she enters the world of teenagers on their annual break – bitchiness, crushes, pranks and jealousies. But Bailey also has her young sister to worry about, and the lasting effects of that terrible night …
Bailey used to be a competitive swimmer; she would literally submerge herself in her passion: “I never remember anything except the water.” Her father used to criticise her for it – saying she used the water as a way of cutting herself off from her family. But after the awful night when her parents were murdered, everything changed. Realising that being amongst people she didn’t know meant she could lie, the lie she tells is that she can’t swim – not because she doesn’t want to; she doesn’t want people to see her scars. She knows that people always want the gory details, but after that “they didn’t know what to say, and things got weird.”
Bailey makes friends: Adam who is there with his little brother Jack, and who has a lot in common with Bailey; Freya her cabin-mate; Amber and Jenny who have the cabin next door; and Clare, the most complicated, destructive and wounded of her new acquaintances. All these people come to the resort every year, and it leaves Bailey playing catch-up, and vulnerable to mis-information.
Underwater is a ‘teenagers dealing with issues’ novel, Bailey sorting out what sort of relationship she wants with Adam, and shyness, sexual orientation, self-harm and gender difference all get an airing: “I guess they don’t realise the things that impress girls aren’t the same as the silly things other boys are impressed by.” But beneath all of this is the slow burning dread of finding out what happened that night in Wellington, the consequences of extreme violence, the inability to talk about traumatic experiences – not even to counsellors, the guilt, the regret, and the nightmares. And the realisation that your focus might be wrong, that a vital clue to what happened that night might be right there in front of you.
As well as being party to Bailey’s thoughts, there are clues to her state of mind: Seeing red board shorts at the pool as blood in the water, telling Tilly unbowdlerised versions of fairy tales, considering self-harm as a distraction … “… memories are like being underwater. You can see the real world, but it’s so remote you don’t feel connected to it” – like remembering how her mother used to wake her up in the night each year at her birth time – and turning seventeen and recognising for the first time “I had missed the moment I was born.” Taking on the mother role for Tilly adds another veneer of sadness for Bailey.
I found myself wondering a bit about the existence of Gran and Tilly when they were apart from Bailey, Tilly and Jack spending a lot of time on the jungle gym, and I was hoping Gran wasn’t alone swigging G&Ts in her cabin. But apart from that, Underwater is an absorbing read, there is a truly upsetting climactic scene, and the horror of what Bailey and little Tilly have lived though is skilfully revealed. Another YA novel that will appeal to a wider group of readers.