15-year-old Pearl lives with her mother in a small house on her uncle’s property in Fallbrook, California. She is used to hanging out with her cousin Robbie and her Uncle Hoyt, an avocado farmer using both legal and illegal immigrant labor to work his ranch. When Pearl spots Amiel, a young migrant miming and juggling in the midst of a group, she immediately wants her uncle to hire him, and once he does that she wants to get to know him better. However, getting to know him presents many problems, namely his poverty and need to hide from authorities, and the taboo of a relationship between a migrant worker and a daughter of the community all leading to consequences that none can foresee.
Dark Water is a contemplative novel concerning the complexities underscoring Pearl’s life in the summer of 2007, a year known for its fierce wildfires, which play a prominent role in the concerns of the town throughout the book. Pearl struggles in the face of her mother’s grief at her father’s infidelity and abandonment of his family, and the emotional and physical loss of their once close relationship. Along with the issues of her immediate family, she and her best friend are slowly growing apart, and her cousin Robby comes to her with a dilemma which threatens the way both of them feel about family and relationships. In this confusing time, Pearl spends most of her free time either alone or in pursuit of Amiel.
McNeal sets up a moving story giving the reader the opportunity to ponder the emotional landscape in which Pearl dwells- the state of mind which ultimately drives her decisions. There are big issues contained within this book, but the story focuses much more on the way Pearl perceives her world and her personal reactions to what she experiences. The novel quietly moves through Pearl’s interactions with her friends, dealings with her family, and with her peripheral notice of the lives of the migrants workers while she attempts to get close to Amiel. This story is about this girl and how she views life. The relationship with Amiel drives a large part of the novel but it’s never fully explained why she feels the way she does. He is plagued by very real concerns of deportation, food and shelter, and is initially very reluctant to spend any time with Pearl at all.
Dark Water is well-written and moving, but it suffers from some plausibility issues, some of which could be chalked up to the passionate and impulsive nature of teenagers. I was a little baffled by the ending, because some of the choices that characters made did not seem supported by the way I came to view them throughout the story. The circumstances and themes were heavy and replete with loss and sadness, but the somewhat improbable ending made it hard to mesh the emotions stirred with the actual events.