Calgary author Kim McCullough’s debut novel, Clearwater is a good read for teens and young adults, mostly because it resembles a season of Degrassi. The novel follows Claire Sullivan and Jeff Carson, two teenagers living in a troubled small town in northern Manitoba. They struggle with abuse, drugs, drinking, suicide, relationships et cetera. There’s rarely a moment where a new bomb does not drop soap-opera style.
Like daytime television, this book features a cast of female leads who are static, cliché and perpetually falling apart. Characters like both Claire’s and Jeff’s mothers simply stand around and blend into the background until it’s time to move the plot forward. Claire’s mother is a typical neglectful mother who isn’t there for her kids, while Jeff’s mother is a passive housewife incapable of leaving or standing up to her husband. Claire’s brother, Daniel, has a drunken aboriginal wife who wants custody of their child but cannot take care of herself — much less anyone else. Granted, these women are side characters, but even the main characters like Claire and her sister, Leah, are portrayed as emotional and physical train wrecks with very little reprieve in their self-wrought misery.
This is not to say the book is poorly written. The language is strong, the chapters are well paced, and the tension is thick. However, for a book driven by characters and their dialogue, the characters just aren’t engaging. The dialogue too often comes across as wooden or lacking subtext and the characters often speak like they are dispensing morals or describing the book’s overall theme — when they aren’t shouting lines that are expected on a soap opera.
These soap-opera relationships are frustrating. At first it seems Claire and Jeff will just be good friends and it is refreshing to read about two people of the opposite gender getting along without needing to be in love. Unfortunately, they fall into the romantic comedy yo-yo cycle of liking each other and then not liking each other because of a misunderstanding — then liking each other anyway.
Overall the book wasn’t too bad. It is an enjoyable read because of the author’s skilled use of language, but unfortunately the characters just take away too much of the book’s power. Despite that, I’m interested in reading McCullough’s next novel. If the power of her language is any indication, a sophomore novel may have a lot of potential.