In Perry’s heart-rending but ultimately hopeful novel it’s the simple truths that hit home most forcefully. There are poignant descriptions of moments in life that reflect our own experience of loss and grief. Let Me Be Like Water is Holly’s story but it has an essential truth that will resonate with readers, with anyone who has experienced loss. This novel is powerful and evocative, emotionally raw and edgy, but this is not a grim read. The novel has a charm and a sense of humour that belies the darkness of the theme, it’s beguiling. Let Me Be Like Water is also deftly written; elegiac and haunting. Those small details of grief and loss that everyone can recognise because they reflect a universal experience are brilliantly rendered here and they emanate from almost every page. Each memory is in its own way a microcosm of Holly’s love and her pain, collectively they reveal the void in her life left by the death of Sam, the grief that consumes her thoughts and actions in the months after he is gone. Let Me Be Like Water follows Holly’s life in the year or so after the tragic accident that took her love, Sam, from her. In the midst of her pain, Holly is consumed by grief, she doesn’t analyse it (of course, as readers we do). She does, however, survive it and slowly she comes to terms with her loss, with the fact that the clocks didn’t stop. Luckily she is not alone in her journey, there are people around her who recognise her suffering and want to help. Gradually Holly puts her life back together. Let Me Be Like Water is an exploration of Holly’s love for Sam, her grief and the friendships that carry Holly through to that time when you can start living for herself again.

Autumn, the sea front, Brighton. Holly has been sitting on the sea wall until her bum is numb. She finally gets up to leave and fortunately a passer by, Frank, sees that she has dropped her keys on the ground. Although it doesn’t feel like it this is a lucky day for Holly, Frank’s company is just what she needs. He recognises the sadness in Holly, he’s been there himself, he lost his partner, Ian, six years earlier. They set off together and when they part they agree to meet up again the next day. Holly is new to Brighton, no longer able to bare London.

“I’ve always loved London, so when I started to hate it I knew I had to leave.”

Holly exchanged the river for the sea, London reminds her too much of Sam. There are too many echoes and memories:

“But I heard you everywhere: our residue on pavements and the seats of buses, reminding me of a conversation, a look, a half-hour I’d spent waiting for you or sitting in the office counting down the conversations until I’d step onto the District line to find you.”

Each passage is brief, they flit between Brighton (now/grief) and London (past/love). Like the first time Holly saw Sam on the dance floor with another girl. He approached the bar as she was standing by it only to be diverted back onto the dance floor by another girl. But she dreamed of him that night and, when they finally got together, he says he saw her too.

In Brighton, Frank is a retired magician, he pulls flowers from thin air to amuse Holly. It doesn’t exactly raise a laugh but it begins to get him past her emotional firewall (where only Sam exists). Frank has a group of friends, a book group, which Holly joins. She meets Gabriella, who commutes into London but left that city some years ago for the sake of her son, sadly the boy died of leukaemia shortly after that (others have their own sad stories). It seems to Holly that they are “a collection of broken people”, but she comes to realise they are ordinary people and part of life is grief, they are further down the road to acceptance that she is. They read, cook, share wine and enjoy each other’s company. Crucially, there is space for sadness in this process of healing:

“Don’t apologise, Holly. Rage is healthy. You’ve got to let it out.” [Frank]

As we learn more of the relationship between Holly and Sam so does Holly, or at least the focus of her grief brings the things she took for granted to the fore:

“we explored each other for almost five years. We opened up all the bits of each other we were too scared to show anyone else…”

Suddenly, one day one of her memories of Sam is a happy one, not tinged with sadness, it’s slight change. Over the seasons Holly gets a job and new friends, she faces up to her loss, eventually managing to return to London alone and even confronting the issue of a new relationship. Holly isn’t healed, no one ever is, but she is coming to terms with her grief. Sam will always be there.

Water is a motif in the novel; the fluidity of water, it’s ability to vanish but also the way water passes by on its course, and moves on. Holly might appear to want to dissolve or disappear at times but she is eventually brave enough to flow like a river or a sea.

Frank is a wonderful character:

“Where did you come from, Frank?” I asked. “How do you know so much?”
“I’ve been here all along,” he replied. “I’m a magician.”

His presence is slightly magical, he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time but he represents a common humanity, being there for someone suffering.

Perry has a light touch while dealing in big themes, her insight can pull you up short:

“And that’s the bit that makes me feel as though the hole going through me doesn’t exist, because I don’t even feel like I have a body anymore.”

Let Me be Like Water is a beautiful big-hearted novel, a story of love, loss, surviving and opening up to the world again. Perry is a perceptive writer, her prose is elegant and yet concise, every word seems to matter. This is a powerful emotional ride but ultimately a truly uplifting read.

Paul Burke 4/5

Let Me Be Like Water by S.K. Perry
Melville House 9781911545255 pbk Apr 2019