The Daughter Ship
by Boo Trundle
Pantheon Books, 2023
Reviewed by Liz Matthews
From the first sentences of Boo Trundle’s wildly imaginative and probing novel, The Daughter Ship, we understand we’re about to take an unfamiliar ride. “I want to introduce you to my girls. We all live together in a U-boat.” Truitt, Star, and Smooshed Bug are the initial narrators of Katherine’s story, and at the outset these younger versions of Katherine hint at why they might be stuck together in a World War II submarine. Through their voices and eventually Katherine’s, we get a sketch of her life—upper-middle class, unhappily married with two teenagers living in New Jersey, and a questionable childhood in Virginia Beach that involved an eccentric father obsessed with World War II and an emotionally checked-out mother.
Perhaps because multiple voices tell Katherine’s story, there is no slow burn, or gradual build-up to what is plaguing her. If one voice shuts down or evades their story, another voice picks up the thread. The collective voices are more forthcoming than a single voice. On the surface, her marriage is suffering and she’s on the brink of relapsing. It’s clear that she experienced trauma at a young age, trauma that she can’t name, that she understood was wrong, but not how very wrong. The decision to split the story into different narrators who share a body is a deft way to illustrate what early trauma does to a person. How does someone survive being betrayed by adults she trusts? Through the chorus of inner children stuck beneath the surface of Katherine’s consciousness, Trundle illustrates both how adults can disengage from traumatic paths and how these walls can be broken down.
Polyphonic novels work best when the voices fuse, when the narratives converge and layer on top of one another, and Trundle takes full advantage of this device. Star says to Truitt, “It’s time to set Bug free. And take the top off her mouth” (91). Katherine’s teenagers tell her they found her grandad’s old gas mask, part of a U-boat rescue kit in the attic. Like the most successful experimental novels, this one teaches us how to read it. The reader must be open to the myriad portals that exist between timelines and voices. Trundles also uses other threads like Jack in the Beanstalk, operating manuals, and encyclopedia entries, among other sources. These interjections are woven in seamlessly and amplify the story’s themes of hope, healing, and acceptance.
Non-linear is one way to describe the timeline but too simplistic to capture what Trundle achieves here. To borrow a pattern from Jane Alison’s craft book on narrative, Meander Spiral Explode, The Daughter Ship would best be defined as a tsunami with “…it’s deeply designed and patterned, with repeating shapes, webs of connection, visual images and phrases that repeat like dots of color on a canvas” (Alison 245). As Katherine’s giant narrative wave reaches land, her past, present, and future intermingle to the point that her life has ceased to have predictable order. In her notes at the end of the novel and when asked in interviews about her process, Trundle shares her use of cut-ups, collage, scissors, watercolors, and even stand-up comedy. These modalities help underscore how she achieves such depth across these multiple narratives. A close study of any passage also reveals how Trundle’s attention to diction and syntax coupled with her fearless voice instills faith in the reader. Yes, you’ll want to start the book again as soon as you finish, to plunge even deeper, to discover what lies beneath.
In the final part of the novel after a particularly grueling scene with Katherine, Trundle doesn’t follow what happens with interiority. We don’t get to see what Katherine is thinking after making a bold decision. Instead, we witness her philosophizing. Maybe these are the final steps of a dissociative state, as she parts with logical language, or more likely—this is the narrator getting closer to her truth. Language can’t explain what she is learning about herself, her history, and how she moves through the world. It’s a felt experience Trundle is expressing through the breaking down of language, more akin to jazz or surrealist artwork.
“Some of us move through the world like ice-cream cones, others like the human hand. Some are shaped like trombones. Others develop their gifts and interests like farm outbuildings, where the tools are kept and the hens lay eggs. Umbrellas, carburetors, the human hearts. Plants, tress, vines, a fetus in the womb” (260).
It can feel nearly impossible to survive bringing traumatic events to the surface and Trundle does not circumvent the reason why most people will keep the younger versions of themselves in the dark–whether shame or guilt that they were somehow responsible. More voices join the story; the narrators multiply in some cases and are joined by Katherine’s female ancestors. The tsunami ascends. “You might also draw the book as a series of cells…or as a long, long line…or even, god love it, an arc. A wave so huge it would hurt your neck to lean back and see its peak before the whole thing toppled and crashed” (Alison 237). This is not an easy book to read; it’s discomfiting like the best artwork, and like Katherine, the reader may want to look away, to suppress and subjugate. But the ugly hard truth is eventually unearthed and the journey to get there would not have been possible without the many voices and relationships shared and broken along the way. The fragments come together to create a cohesive story for Katherine to come to terms with. Surpassing anger isn’t driving Katherine’s quest. Instead, a childlike curiosity and innocence prevails. The sunken characters permeate Katherine’s story, and this tumultuous experience is more than worth it for the narrator and the reader; all lives are enriched by the end.