Shaken in the Water

Written by Jessica Penner
Review by Jane Steen

This multigenerational story is set in early 20th-century rural Kansas, in a German-speaking, Ukrainian Mennonite community rooted in tradition yet marching inexorably into the modern world. The tensions of belief, tradition, and change pull against an interleaved narrative of human experiences – love, loss, despair, lust – that darts back and forth over a period of around a hundred years.

Penner’s writing style is lyrical and precise, a pleasure to read. The absence of quotation marks in dialogue and the use of both High and Low German – sometimes translated, sometimes not – help to build a sense of otherness, of a community that understands its own rules even as it chafes against them. The sense of place is very strong; I could feel the blinding sun and smell the wheat and dust of harvest.

The cast of characters is vivid, each of their stories quickly sketched and yet memorable. They center loosely around Agnes, her husband Peter, and his sister Nora, whose story forms the core of the novel. It is Nora’s presence – as a memory, as a white tiger, as a disembodied Voice – that provides the dissonant note to lift the narrative further out of ordinariness and reinforce the feeling of tension I found to be present throughout the text.

Altogether I found Shaken in the Water an enjoyable, compelling literary read that gave me a sense of how the Mennonite community is evolving.