Wally Lamb’s novels often examine the more dysfunctional elements of human psychology, particularly as it relates to grappling with traumatic events and experiences.
We Are Water follows in much the same vein as we parse through the life of the main character, Annie Oh, who suffered severely as a child from the death of her mother and baby sister in a flood, her father’s resulting alcoholism, and sexual abuse inflicted on her by a cousin. As a result, her adult life has been a series of foggy, ill-conceived choices. She suffers through barely controlled anger and repression, a communication-less marriage, and primarily joyless child-rearing.
Her artwork, however, speckles her life with a few rays of hope. Because of this, Annie stands poised on the transition to a new life of wealth, fame, and even love with her art dealer and lesbian lover, Viveca. The question lies as to whether this is truly a healing progression towards her true self and needs, or simply the attempt at an escape from her self-assembled cage.
The parts of the novel correspond to the different focuses of Annie’s life: her art, her family, and the events leading up to her future wedding, with each chapter presented from a different character’s point of view. Lamb is known for being able to employ different voices in his novels. Here he switches flawlessly between his characters’ personae, exploring the impact of Annie’s unresolved childhood on those around her.
The portraits are detailed. They have an honest and authentic sound, but what is glaringly missing is an account from her new partner, Viveca. It is unclear whether Lamb merely intends this character to represent a ray of hope for the future, but it comes across as a dismissal of this character as being unimportant and shallow.
Despite this omission, the novel does a wonderful job of describing the mutability of Annie’s experience, and displaying the extent to which she has shaped it from her own point of view. In doing so, Lamb points to a conceivable escape from the traps of past turmoil or abuse. That is, by considering other people’s perspectives in order to free ourselves from the limiting bonds of personal experience.
The necessary instrument to achieve this end is one notably lacking in our protagonist’s relationships, that of forthright, candid communication. In fact, throughout most of the book, Annie’s most honest expositions originate from her art works, which, as art often does, provide the voice for her inner screams.
In summary, Wally Lamb has once again successfully written an account of a very dark psychical place, imbedded with the glimmers of optimism, without becoming overly sentimental.