He leans his face into the animal’s side, closes his eyes and sucks in the sweet, familiar smell – the blend of dust and grass and warm sweat. The smell of the horse takes him back to when Rip and Tom were there in the pasture, when he was a boy on another hot summer night, when the fences of the farm encompassed his world and he knew every inch of it as well as he knew his own skin. – from Cool Water, page 29 –
I love when a book surprises me; when I open the pages and fall into a story that swallows up time and takes me some place I have not been before; when I meet characters who touch my heart and teach me something about life. Cool Water is one of those books. Set in rural Saskatchewan, the novel brings to life several characters who are interconnected because they share the same small town. Warren is a renowned short story writer, and it is easy to see those roots in Cool Water. The novel has the feel of linked short stories. It reminded me of Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful novel Olive Kitteridge with one big difference: Strout’s book uses the minor characters to give depth to Olive, the protagonist; Warren, on the other hand, fully develops each character in alternating chapters in order to give life to the town of Juliet in which they live.
The novel opens with a one hundred mile horse race (which we later learn is part of the history of the town). We are then introduced to several characters as the story unfolds over the course of one day: Lee, a young man who is seeking to understand his biological roots after he inherits a family farm; Blaine and Vicki Dolson and their six children (including the teenage Shiloh) who are struggling financially; Willard Shoenfeld and his sister-in-law Marian who struggle to communicate their love for each other; Norval, the town’s banker, and his wife Lila and daughter Rachelle who is preparing to marry the father of her unborn baby; and Hank Trass, a retired rodeo cowboy, and his wife Lynn who is still trying to come to terms with Hank’s long ago infidelities.
Each of the characters is flawed and struggles with their own self worth, identity, or relationships with each other. United by the harsh and awesome landscape of the desert, they navigate the pitfalls of life and seek to realize their dreams. Often they are caught off guard by unexpected events, or find themselves detoured by misunderstandings. I was especially drawn to Willard and Marian, an odd couple who find themselves together after Willard’s brother (and Marian’s husband) Ed dies. Nine years have passed since Ed’s death, and Willard and Marian have lived under the same roof, moving forward in their lives side by side, yet apart. Their fumbled communications are poignant and compelling.
He goes back outside and gets in his truck and drives away from the yard. Toward town. The Oasis. He’ll go to the Oasis for supper. They’re used to him there. He can sit at a table and eat his meal and probably no one will talk to him, but if someone does, it will be about the weather, or grain prices, or football. And he won’t have to hear the words, I’m leaving, Willard. I though you’d better know… – from Cool Water, page 242 –
Warren’s writing is subtle, intuitive, and richly rendered. Her characters are real people and part of the tapestry of the setting. Warren understands how where we live reflects who we are – and she seamlessly weaves the landscape through the stories of her characters. She also brings in the connections between people and animals – something which resonated with my own experiences with the animals who have passed through my life. Blaine (a man who is struggling to keep food on the table for his family) finds his horse suffering from colic and must decide whether or not to spend the money on a vet or simply put the animal out of its misery – the decision is not just about whether or not the horse will be saved, but it is a reminder of where Blaine is in his life and the hope (or lack of it) for things to get better.
Blaine knows what he has to do. It’s not that he’s never had to put a horse down before, but this horse – the last one – now represents every ambition that he’s ever had and his last bit of hope, however unreasonable, that things might turn around. – from Cool Water, page 224 –
Cool Water is an exquisite novel of every day life which includes the disappointments, challenges, and small joys we all encounter. At times funny, but always sensitive, Cool Water is a book that tenderly explores the connections between people, and reminds us of the common threads of human experience which join us.
*FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.