Book Review: As Earth Without Water by Katy Carl
Review by Casie Dodd
Wiseblood Books, 2021
One mark of many powerful stories of conversion is the role human love plays in the journey toward holiness. Our relationships with others can at once reflect hints of divinity while also leaving us keenly aware of something lacking. Similarly, the role of beauty in an artistic life—its capacity for transcendence and its incompleteness without tethers to a deeper meaning—can send us searching for that ultimate source of inspiration.
Katy Carl’s debut novel As Earth Without Water explores these themes with grace. The book follows a meandering love story between narrator Angele Solomon and her former lover Dylan Fielding, tracing the threads that have kept them connected despite major transformations in their lives after their years as fellow art students. While Angele is forced to take a conventional day job for the sake of paying the bills—causing her creativity to stagnate—Dylan’s career flourishes, complete with a dedicated exhibit at The Art Institute in Chicago. This is where we first encounter them together, and over the course of the novel, Carl takes us back and forth between glimpses of their past relationship and forward into a significant event that reunites them. In the process, Angele reflects on how her love for Dylan never seems able to fade completely: “this little tongue of fire, asking only to be fed.” Although she struggles with ways Dylan has failed her, she cannot escape the sense that their love remains “a whisper away from worship.”
It takes time for her to understand fully what that means. Similarly, Dylan’s movement toward Catholicism, though at first presented to readers abruptly, takes time to unfold its deeper implications. Now Thomas Augustine, a novice at a monastery in Kentucky, he explains to Angele: “I changed slowly. I thought I didn’t believe until I realized I did.” As Thomas Augustine, he discovers his quests for artistic beauty and divine transcendence can be inextricably linked. Heartbreakingly, his faith is shaken (but not broken) through a traumatic event, one that Carl handles delicately yet honestly.
As Angele finds herself pulled back into Thomas Augustine’s story, she becomes more aware of how their love continues to shape her into the person she not only is but longs to become. This development begins with a touching level of empathy (“My own grief and his pain fall silently into me together, like plumes of ink that sink down and bloom through clear water”). This expands into a desire to protect and defend her friend against people who fail to understand him—particularly his parents. Carl invites readers to consider how conversion can be an inward process, unintelligible to those outside. At first, Angele is also one of these outsiders, thinking to herself, “It must all be his own invention: otherwise everyone would see it, would hear it. And, clearly, so few do.” Dylan’s family fails utterly to see him in ways that also take Angele time to appreciate. As a result, the novel allows us to experience a gradual process of discovery that Angele must work through on her own.
In Carl’s prose are echoes of other great Catholic novels, such as Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Glimpses of voices from Brideshead Revisited slip in along the way. This is not to say that Carl’s novel is derivative; instead, she adds a contemporary link to a long chain of Catholic literature, riffing on elements from these stories to reinvent them in a context more immediately relatable to our even more post- post-Christian society. Her novel also brings to mind more recent books like Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. However, Carl takes the conversion narrative a step further, in ways not only satisfying as art but edifying to the soul.
CASIE DODD lives in Arkansas with her husband and two children. Her writing has appeared in This Land, Ekstasis, and other journals. She writes online for Dappled Things and studies in the MFA program at the University of St. Thomas. Find her on Twitter @CasieDodd.