When I say beach read, what do you imagine? Perhaps you think of a tantalizing summer romance in a coastal town where the passion is as hot as the sun and sand. Maybe you’re more in the mood for a cozy mystery about a body washing up on the shore, and the quirky local who investigates (and may work in a bookstore, or at a bakery, or perhaps a bed and breakfast). Generally, beach reads have been described as books published during summer that are easy to read and take on a vacation. This is not, usually, a book you’ll spend hours analyzing or read in a college lecture hall.
Nothing is wrong with that and reading for entertainment or escape is one of the most valid reasons to do so. However, as someone who analyzes almost everything and can’t help it, I found that Katrina Monroe’s They Drown Our Daughters surprised me as both a beach read and a work I can imagine on a grad student’s comps list someday. I read it at the end of June for an escape and finished it within two days. This—if you’ve been paying attention to my reading habits—is an amazing feat.
Told across the generations from Regina Holm in 1881 to Meredith Strand in the present, this saga captures the continuous ebb and flow of how the women in one bloodline seem cursed to die, disappear, or go mad because of something in the water. In the present, Meredith and her daughter, Alice, return to Cape Disappointment, WA to stay with her estranged mother, Judith, due to ongoing marriage issues. Meredith doesn’t believe in the stories or traditions Judith forced on her, and wants to have a better relationship with her daughter than she had with her mother. However, as history begins to repeat itself, the women must question whether there is truth to the ghost stories, or if generational trauma and mental illness is another thing to inherit.
One of my favorite aspects of this novel is how, since it switches between past ancestresses and the present, we are able to clearly see how each generation is effected by the previous and then affects the following. This is a story of mothers and daughters told across the generations. For example, Judith being a strict and superstitious figure in Meredith’s childhood leads to her rebellion and disbelief later. Most of the novel is spent with Meredith or Judith, but the flashes we get from other women build this narrative of longing, mystery, and sorrow. Intergenerational stories, including family history or what is passed down, are a bit of the bread and butter of horror, but I love that the trauma associated with this continual terror actually has an impact on the characters, plot, and setting.
Meredith is an impactful character, and she is particularly effective as one of our main narrators. I was reminded, in a way, of Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water as I read. Although we obviously have the mystery of the ocean as the driving force, so much of the plot revolves around her dissolving marriage with her wife, Kristin, her worries about Alice’s well-being, and trying to live with a mother she can’t seem to understand. Meredith’s anger and grief surrounding her reality is relatable, and she’s a well-rounded figure who can love, lash out, and lose herself in equal turn. I’ll admit I was surprised Meredith was a queer character who was allowed a normal horror story instead of one that revolved around her queerness. These depictions are just as necessary, and I love how Monroe depicts the relationships Meredith has in past and present.
What really solidified this as a beach read, for me, was the intense atmosphere and setting of Cape Disappointment, WA. I’ll admit I was almost two-thirds through the book before I looked it up and discovered this was an actual location and not a fictional small town as is common in horror (looking at you, King). As someone from the West and partial to the Oregon coastlines, this was a more familiar place for me than the sun-drenched beaches of California or anywhere on the East Coast. The lighthouse, a symbol through every generation, is picturesque in its idealism and neglect. The house, passed down through Meredith’s family, comes to life on the page in its opulence and emptiness. Although we don’t spend much time in the town itself, the characters and their feelings about where they’re from mostly solidifies it. Most of the pages are, rightly, devoted to the beach, the ocean, and the mystery in the waves. This is one of the novel’s finer strengths since characters continuously enter the water, but each time carries different weight and feels fresh.
I’m not going to go too much into the plot since mystery is key here. I was, however, reminded of Victor LaValle’s The Changeling in how reality, fantasy, and mystery can all mesh together into something coherent and terrifying. Numerous twists and turns, in all eras, keep readers on edge before dropping them into deeper waters. Trust me when I say this is, overall, a good way to drown, and you’ll be holding your breath with every page. I’m sure some readers will be split on the last third of the book and its ending, but I was too absorbed into an enjoyable thrill to care too much. And that’s magic.
As for horror, this book falls cleanly into the Gothic with its lush setting, haunted history, and overbearing mystery. However, several scenes contain visceral violence or a sense of repulsion. An early scene where Meredith drinks from an unknown jar of ocean water in the lighthouse made me gag. Generational trauma creates its own violence, but the repeated harm these women come to and how far they unravel in this quest is its own kind of terrifying. Fans of “quiet horror” will find much to enjoy here. I won’t promise this book will make you question ever entering the ocean again, but you might think twice.
And, not necessarily a spoiler, but I appreciate how the book, in its depiction of a key character later on, solved one of my quips with how the trauma begins. One of the things about trauma is that it’s easy to blame someone else for your behavior, but—at some point—accountability must be taken in order to break this cycle. Until then, this pain becomes as dependable as the tide. Again, some academic one day is going to write pages on the symbolism of a pink shell.
Overall, They Drown Our Daughters is a beach read, but you may be haunted long beyond the summer nights. I’d recommend this novel to women struggling to untangle their own familial traumas, or anyone who has a complicated relationship with their mother. If you want a setting that captures the cloudy, misty eeriness of the Pacific Northwest then Cape Disappointment won’t disappoint. I’d recommend it to readers who played mermaids, collected seashells from tide pools, or toured every roadside attraction because they’ll find childhood in these pages. Disappear for a few hours in Katrina Monroe’s atmospheric and haunting debut.
This review is for an ARC copy received during StokerCon. Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this work. They Drown Our Daughters is available as of July 12th.