In at the Deep End

Image of In At The Deep End
Release Date: 
June 4, 2019
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

“Davies ushers in a new era of queer fiction, one in which queerness is just one part of a human story.”

Julia hasn’t had sex for three years, and when she gets back into the game, it’s terrible. “I knelt by the bed and gave him a handjob,” she laments, “trying to put some feeling into it . . . but I felt as though I were pumping a particularly resistant bicycle tyre.” Thus begins Kate Davies’ fabulous debut novel In at the Deep End. Everything changes when Julia hooks up with a woman from a party. After a lifetime of being “weird or bad” at sex, Julie realizes she isn’t bad at it; she’s just been having sex with the wrong people.

Recalling her first night with a woman Julia says, “I learned a lot that night. That hands are a lot more versatile and reliable than penises. That women know how to use their tongues. That touching another woman’s breasts can transport you to a place of unexpected ecstasy.”

In a refreshing twist on the traditional coming out story, Julia is delighted to realize she is a lesbian. All the things she loves, like lip-synching, rainbows, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, are now hers. She belongs!

Julia’s friends tease her a little bit, including a hysterical riff on whether or not cunnilingus will be like “licking a snail.” But generally, everyone is happy for her, and she immediately meets a supportive queer community at an LBGTQ square dancing night. Square dancing is particularly important since it’s the first time Julia has danced since an injury ended her dancing career.

However, Julia’s new found lesbianism does not save her from grief. She meets Sam, a talented and troubled artist. The start of the relationship is a high above highs. Sam is an amazing lover, an exciting partner, a loving friend. But bit by bit her love becomes controlling. By the end, their relationship is unambiguously abusive, and Julia’s friends, parents, and therapist plead with her to leave.

By far the best feature of In at the Deep End is the first-person voice. Self-aware, clever, sardonic, and incredibly funny, Julia can make getting tea at her numbingly dull job into a comedy of errors. And like a good stand-up routine, the story opens with easy jokes and then uses humor to discuss serious topics.

Later in the story, Julia lies in bed, devastated, listening to Sam having sex with another woman in the adjacent room. She leafs through a book on polyamory. “I looked at the cover and almost laughed—it featured hyper—real illustrations of naked, mulleted people holding hands, apparantly all orgasiming in union. There was a cat too, for some reason. The title Polyamory for Beginners: Infinite Pleasure, Minimal Pain, was in a font that looked worryingly like Comic Sans.”

But abuse is no joking matter, and Davies never lets humor downplay Julia’s suffering. In fact, the humor of In at the Deep End serves as the perfect vehicle for showcasing the allure of an abusive partner. Like Julia, the reader is swept up in the excitement, joy, and spontaneity of Sam and Julia’s early relationship. Later, like Julia, the reader thinks, Wait, what happened? We were so happy.

Of course, Julia must leave and does. However, the novel ends on a nostalgic note: nostalgia for Sam’s passion and beauty, and sympathy for her pain. Julia does not want to go back, but she has experienced something she will never recapture, something dark and transcendent.

In this moment, Davies proves that she is more than a comic writer—although that would be plenty to mark her as a rising star. Davies’ insights into love and human experience are as sharp as any “serious” writer’s, and the poignant closing observation will remind her readers of the first passionate relationship they had to leave. The memory of that love still resonates like the echo of a bell. 

This nod to the charisma of the abusive lover is not simple or easy. Some reviews of In at the Deep End will dwell on social-issue politics. Shouldn’t Davies have depicted lesbian relationships in a better light? Were her portraits of the polyamorous or the SM communities fair? Was the cast of characters sufficiently inclusive?

Scholars of lesbian fiction will note the book’s resemblance to pulp fiction of the 1950s wherein a young ingénue falls for a dangerous woman. Her life devolves. Eventually, someone throws themself off a cliff. Other scholars will argue that In at the Deep End reclaims those stories. Julia is not an innocent violet. Her life does not devolve because she is with a woman. And while there is an appropriately dark and sea-drenched cliff, no one throws themself off it.

While Davies is almost certainly aware of the discourse around today’s queer fiction, the story itself is not. The novel does not bend and bow to societal pressure to be anything other than what it is: the story of characters so real the reader will forget that these are not their real-life friends.

In this way, Davies ushers in a new era of queer fiction, one in which queerness is just one part of a human story. The author is free to explore life with the unselfconscious ease previously afforded only to writers in the sexual majority. Hopefully, Davies will use her brilliant and insightful sense of humor to bring us many more such books.