Wednesday 3 March 2021

Review by Gus Gresham of "Drowning: A Memoir" by Andy Palmer


This is a well-crafted real-life tale that packs a punch with its no-nonsense language. It’s funny, sad, moving, and shocking in places. But what will draw in, disarm and beguile a reader most of all is the courage and honesty of the writing.
The book is subtitled A Memoir, but it definitely reads like a novel. With its unflinching scrutiny of human failings and the depths to which addiction can drag a person, it put the reviewer in mind of the extraordinary Melvin Burgess’s Junk.

As the central character of his own story, Andy is a flawed anti-hero who is desperate to be understood and loved, but who frequently hits the self-destruct button. Even during the experimentation of his adolescent years, the seeds of desperation are sprouting. In one passage, he is abusing his medicinal inhaler, taking snort after snort because it produces a kind of high. When the inhaler is exhausted, “I grabbed a can of deodorant, wrapped a towel around the top and sprayed it into my mouth breathing in the fumes. It worked …”

We feel his pain and shame as he rips off his grandad and raids the neighbours’ medicine cabinet. Anything to get a fix. And as he leaves school and gets paid work, he begins to consume truly frightening amounts of alcohol. The writing cleverly distorts the narrator’s motives: is he getting wasted for its own sake or doing it as a means of self-annihilation? “Nothing can beat oblivion. I wanted all my feelings to go. I wanted to be numb.” There was a scene in the Mike Figgis film Leaving Las Vegas (1995) in which Elisabeth Shue’s character says something like, “So you’re drinking as a way of killing yourself?” And Nicolas Cage’s character says something like, “Or killing myself is a way to drink.”

In Drowning, however, it’s not just booze. And amid the spare language, room is carved out for arresting imagery. There are fine passages describing tripping on acid or coming up on MDMA: “My stomach turned into a jellyfish and floated off.”

Andy Palmer’s prose is very real and immediate. And disturbing. You have to keep reading because your head is whirling with questions like, What’s going to happen? How can it possibly end?

A fantastic reminder, too, that indie publishing has some priceless gems to offer.

About the reviewer
Gus Gresham is an avid reader and writer. He has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and has worked variously as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, community activist for Greenpeace, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, interpersonal and communication skills facilitator, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines Brittle Star and Under The Radar, and his recently published novel, EARTHRISE, is available on Amazon. You can read a review of it here

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