In The Haunting of Strawberry Water, short story writer and playwright Tara Gould focuses upon a new mother ‘in the throes of post-natal depression’. The protagonist’s pregnancy has thrown up past turmoil, in which she is trying to understand why she herself was abandoned as a baby ‘by the mother she never knew’. Gould’s story sounded wonderfully mysterious; it is set in a 1920s bungalow in the countryside, in which ‘supernatural forces begin to take hold in this gripping and heartrending tale of the uncanny.’
The Haunting of Strawberry Water has been well reviewed, and the following comments made the story appeal to me even more. Jeff Noon believes that ‘Tara Gould knows an essential truth, that ghosts exist in the darkness of the mind. And that sometimes those ghosts can exit the mind and take up residence in the world…’. Hannah Vincent notes Gould’s ‘elegant and profound’ story, which she sees as much of a piece of nature writing as ‘a compelling ghost story, and an expertly handled meditation on the prickly nature of intimate relationships.’
The unnamed narrator’s childhood bungalow home is named Strawberry Water, after a phenomenon which occurs in certain weathers ‘in late spring and summer’ to the river which runs along the bottom of the garden. In an odd twist of fate, the house comes up for sale, and she and her husband decide to move there from their cramped city apartment with their baby daughter, Freya. This throws up a lot of memories for the narrator. When they first move there, she relates the following: ‘In the woods on the other side of the river, I looked at the grey collection of shapes between the black silhouettes of the trees and I thought I saw a dark form flitting chaotically between them. No doubt a fox or a deer, but it sent an unpleasant shiver through me.’
The story opens with the single Polaroid picture which the narrator has of her mother: ‘All that’s visible is a section of leg where the knee pushes forward, the point of a black, shiny shoe protruding at the base of the wooden door, and three slim fingers clutching the door half way up. The rest is simply the vague impression of the form and presence of a person.’ She has never seen her mother’s face, even in a photograph. As a child, she touchingly collects pebbles from the river, which ‘represented a piece of information about my mother that I’d gleaned over the years.’ She goes on to say: ‘I needed desperately to believe that she was decent. She had left her husband and her baby daughter, but perhaps she had secret reasons.’
We are led from the narrator’s motherless childhood into the more stable period of her twenties, in which she married and fell pregnant: ‘During the whole of my pregnancy,’ she tells us, ‘I was unquestioningly happy – a deep contentment I had never before experienced… I felt connected. I felt… never alone.’ After a difficult birth, in which she states ‘nature revealed her true unmodified self to me’, she visualises herself as follows: ‘… I saw myself putting on a bathrobe and slippers and escaping out of that window, and down the fire escape and away from my baby and the impossible job of being a perfect mother.’
Gould successfully uses a series of short vignettes to weave the story together. The narrative is interconnected, as one vignette leads into the next. Gould’s prose is beautiful, and her story feels like such an honest one, as she relates the everyday struggles of motherhood. Once the more sinister elements start to creep into the narrative – strange noises heard around the house, the baby being unable to settle – I was absolutely invested in the story. By this point, I felt as though I really knew what moved and motivated the bewildered protagonist, and the fear she had surrounding her baby. The inclusion of herself being motherless added an interesting element to the story, and I felt as though it was well explored by Gould.
The Haunting of Strawberry Water is a highly successful short story, which does and says a lot. It is an enjoyable piece of prose, which is beguiling from start to finish; I only wish it had been longer.