cover image The Drowning Room: A Novel of New Amsterdam

The Drowning Room: A Novel of New Amsterdam

Michael Pye. Viking Books, $22.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-670-86598-7

From a sketchy but provocative set of facts, Pye has constructed a chilling, unforgettably haunting story set in Manhattan in the 1600s. The facts, which the author found in 17th-century New Amsterdam legal ledgers when researching his Maximum City: The Biography of New York, concern a woman named Gretje Reyniers: that she arrived from Amsterdam on a ship called the Soutberg; that she was married to a sailor named Anthony ``the Turk'' Janssen; that she publicly declared herself tired of being the nobility's whore; that on the waterfront she measured on a broomstick the genitalia of three sailors; that she owned various tracts of land and did some moneylending; that, five years after being banished from the settlement, she was again living there. The novel opens during a severe winter that has closed the harbor and made Gretje a widow--a tooth infection has led to the Turk's death. The frozen ground makes burial impossible, and so the Turk lies in a coffin in Gretje's backyard, amplifying her loneliness. When the elusive Pieter, an apparently orphaned adolescent, intrudes upon her grief, Gretje suspects him of being either an angel or a demon (``more tart than angel'' she thinks). Through subtle proddings, Pieter prompts Gretje to revisit her life--a grim and nearly loveless catalogue of legal wrangles, prostitution, abandoned infants and flight from the plague. The sole bright spot is her strained, but lifelong, relationship with the Turk. In prose so terse it's almost rude, Pye endows his 17th century with a brutal physicality and casual violence. (The title refers to a method of execution the Turk particularly fears, in which the victim is put in a cell and water poured in.) The author's paramount accomplishment, though, is taking a woman whose character reflects this barbarity and making her life a fascinating tale of grim beauty. (Jan.)