Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Review of All the Water in the World

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All the Water in the World
by Karen Raney
Scribner, 2019; 352pp.; $27 (Hardcover)

Karen Raney's debut novel  All the Water in the World is a candid illustration of the bond between a mother and a daughter faced with an ugly disease and newly developed secrets. The story, which was awarded the 2017 Pat Kavanagh Prize when it was still a work in progress, is told in the voices of teenager, Maddy, and her mother, Eve.

At sixteen, Maddy is a typical teenager with a close group of friends, a crush, and a desire to find her place in the world. She cherishes all of these things, knowing that they could be taken away soon by the cancer destroying her body. As a result, she fully embraces life and thoroughly engages in experiences, such as watching a concert:

They began again, quick and sharp. The pianist was in a world of his own, but the other two exchanged meaningful looks. Soon, the cellist and her bow were in a frenzy, her black hair swinging side to side, beating out the time. Not gently, the cello's neck was gripped, the strings were pinned down by the dramatic vibration of her curved fingers. The melody loosened and tightened, climbed up and up, turned back on itself. The clarinetist had hold of a long sinuous passage. He was following it around to see where it would go, arching his back to make his body more available to the music, almost lifting off the chair. At the last minute he descended. The pianist finished with a stack of chords that made his hands pop off the keys. The cellist bent her head.

Helping Maddy through her illness is her mother, Eve. Maddy's father, Antonio, left Eve while she was still pregnant, but mother and daughter have fostered closeness and solidarity. This is evident in outward expressions, like Eve shaving her head when Maddy loses her hair due to chemo, and internal feelings of connection that each expresses as narrator. Maddy is acutely aware of the link she has with her mother:

Wherever my mother was, in the laundry room or the kitchen or tapping on her computer in the study, there were these invisible strings running from her to me. I could feel them tugging. Here I am. If you need anything. Please need something I can give you.

Eve also feels the attachment between them. When the reader first meets Eve, she is on the dock at the family lake house pondering the silence of the lake broken by fish and turtles coming to the surface.

Maddy, who is a natural philosopher, would want to know whether it really is sound, or just the possibility of sound, that issues from such breaches. I mention Maddy because to have a child is to have a twofold mind. No thought or action belongs to me alone.

As close as they are, Maddy keeps some secrets from her mother. Maddy becomes involved in an environmental activism campaign with her crush, Jack, drawing pictures to be used in an animation. She lets her mother see these drawings, but not a set of more personal drawings she is creating to use in an animation just for herself. Though she keeps the second set a secret, she suspects that her mother knows.

Her eyes traveled over the pictures pinned to my wall. Luckily I was working on the ones for the campaign, not the private ones. Even so, my skin prickled all over, like in those dreams where you find yourself in the school cafeteria with no clothes on. Maybe she knew about the other animation I was doing. She'd always known everything about me. Even things I didn't know about myself.

While working on the campaign, Jack and Maddy become closer and she does not disclose the details of their relationship to her mother. Perhaps the biggest secret she keeps is her desire to find and contact her father, Antonio. When she presses her mother for information about him, Maddy comes close to telling her mother about the secrets involving Jack and Antonio. She decides to not disclose either secret, but it feels strange to her:

Was it possible? Could I really? It seemed like another girl standing there thinking these thoughts, daring to withhold and go without.

The story is told in three parts with the voice alternating between Maddy and Eve. Their two perspectives span different periods of time. In Part I, Maddy's story covers months while Eve's covers only a few hours. This difference in pacing enhances the reader's sense of Maddy's urgency to fill her life with as many experiences as possible during the time she might have.

As one might guess from the title, a theme of water—as a force both threatening and reassuring—is present throughout. When Maddy realizes her strong feelings for Jack and prefers in that moment to be with him rather than her mother, she knows that her relationship with her mother will never go back to the way it was. She pictures herself standing on a rock in the sea:

Recklessly I had scrambled out there, wanting what everyone wants, doing what people do on sunny mornings. But now I could see the black water stretching out in front of me to the horizon, and behind me, in silence, the tide had come in and closed off the way back.

On one visit to the family lake house, Maddy notices a dark bar drifting on the surface of the lake. She thinks about the feeling of sitting in a canoe without using paddles to control the direction, just letting the water decide where to go. This shows her willingness to let whatever happens happen and to take things as they come in her life.

At a different point in the story, Eve goes to a neighbor's house at the lake. She notes that the entire lake can be seen from her own house, but only part of it can be seen from the neighbor's. This reminds the reader that people who are not involved in a situation cannot fully see what is happening to those who are.

The reader will enjoy getting to know Maddy and most likely admire her strength and drive to live life to the fullest. Eve's pride in these qualities and the pain of watching her daughter suffer will also stay with the reader well after closing the book.

To read more about Karen Raney, click here.


Rhonda Havig is a writer, wife, and mother who works in web development. She has a BA in Communication from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where she studied mass media, advertising, and English. Rhonda has written a novel and is currently revising it to pursue publication.


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