“In my experience, the truly evil are few and good people, with the very best intentions, often make very bad decisions and get in way over their heads before they know it. People drown, quietly before our eyes, all the time.” - (Ilsa J Bick in the Acknowledgements of Drowning Instinct)I can never resist a compelling, unreliable narrator. There are few literary techniques I find more engaging than a strong, distinct voice – especially one I’m not sure I can trust. And in sixteen-year-old Jenna Lord, Ilsa J Bick has created a razor sharp voice in a story that is anything but clear-cut. Drowning Instinct puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of listening in on Jenna’s (very) unsettling story, as she dictates it onto a digital recorder for the detective waiting outside the door. She is, in her own words: ”..lucky, a liar, a good girl, a princess, a thief – and a killer.” And what she has to say is not easy to hear. As Bick herself says, this is a difficult, risky book. It does not present predators and victims in a black and white fashion. There is a great deal of ambiguity and complex content – including, but not limited to: self-harm, alcoholism, sexual and physical abuse, grief, PTSD, suicide and a relationship between a teacher and student. However, what prevents this book from descending into the realm of manipulative tragedy porn is that it does not ask the reader to agree with the choices the characters make. But it does demand that the reader think about them, question them, examine the reasoning and motivations of these damaged people.From the opening, Drowning Instinct is an intense novel. While the pieces of the story fall into place gradually, with Jenna alternately withholding and revealing information, the pacing never feels slow. Rather, the slightly ominous tone, the sensation that the plot is inexorably drawing towards a shocking conclusion, and the format in which Jenna relates events, keeps the story gripping. Jenna is an intriguing narrator: intelligent, acerbic, obviously in pain. Her voice is extremely well-executed, balancing her tendency to keep the detective (and thus the reader) at arm’s length, with her raw vulnerability. She is not entirely a sympathetic character – and yet throughout the book all I wanted was for to be able to heal, to find relief. As the layers to her story are revealed, Jenna becomes clearer as a character and her actions are given greater context, which complicates the issue of judging her choices. In this respect, Bick has crafted not only a realistic, complex character – but also developed an interesting dynamic between Jenna and the reader. There are some plot elements that I felt weakened the believability of the story overall – the biggest example being the dramatic changes in attitude of Jenna’s parents. The abrupt turn-arounds in behaviour are almost whip-lash inducing, and the justification provided feels flimsy. That said, I think it’s worth considering that these parts of the story reflect Jenna as a narrator, and that we are hearing what Jenna herself refers to as her “version” of the truth. Early in the novel, Jenna muses on what it means to tell to the truth – and her inability to provide a black and white story, given the circumstances in which hers unfolds. This is not a perfect novel, nor is it an easy one. Bick takes a gamble in choosing to tell this particular story in such a conflicted, ambiguous manner. Yet, while Jenna reaches a conclusion at the end of the book – readers are left to form their own. And I believe that rather than trying to convince readers of a particular stance, this book is instead simply urging them to think. To hear a different perspective. But most of all, to understand what compels such broken people to go to such extreme measures to mitigate their pain – whether we support or condemn their actions.