To Heaven By Water, by Justin Cartwright

September 5, 2009 at 1:44 pm (Book review, books, Uncategorized)

heaven On the face of it, To Heaven By Water is not a plot-driven book. Nevertheless, I found it impossible to put down. The characters are not especially unique; still, they enthralled me. I could not wait to find out what they would do next, or what was about to happen to them. Most of all, I loved the glimpses into their restless, constantly churning minds.

David Cross has recently been widowed; the ghost of his briskly efficient wife Nancy hovers constantly in the background. He has two grown children: Ed, a lawyer; and Lucy, an appraiser and researcher at an elite auction house. Ed and his wife Rosalie have been trying, without success, to have a child. Lucy, meanwhile, is in a relationship that’s proving increasingly unsatisfying.

David Cross has recently retired from a high profile job as a news reader for the BBC. He fills his newly won spare time by working out at a local gym:

“David rows away. It’s far from certain where he is heading. The upper body is something new, a sort of unexplored region attached by the isthmus of the waist to the lower body, which houses the restless sex organs and is also the terminus for the legs. The rowing machine is good for the upper body and the legs. Straightening his back, using his legs (all the power in rowing comes from the legs), imagining the water flying by, ducks happy to get away unscathed….He rows on for half an hour until he has floated free of the gym and on to a sea of tranquility.

He whispers to himself, To heaven by water.

(The italicized phrase is from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

“James M’Cann’s hobby to row me o’er the ferry…
To heaven by water.)

In  his youth, David had aspired to be an actor. He had spent some time in Rome shooting a film version of Christopher Marlowe’s Faust. The title role was played by Richard Burton:

“As David watched him and heard that astonishing voice swelling to fill the huge stage in Dinocitta with its anguish, he found himself shaking: a forty-two-year-old Welsh miner’s son had dissolved the barriers between the immanent and the transcendent worlds.

The memory of that season of adventure retains its fabulous aura as David grows older. As often happens with youthful epiphanies, later life has not provided any experiences of comparable brilliance. But there are compensations, even revelations, as he heads into late middle age.

All throughout, this narrative is fairly bursting with wit, vitality, and irreverence. In a moment of resentment, Ed decides that “There’s a determinedly conservative cast to upper-crust Scots, with their love of roast meat and their distrust of central heating and their use of the word ‘aye’.” Later, Lucy is appalled to learn that Ed and Rosalie might be moving to Geneva. When Ed asks defensively what is wrong with that city, Lucy replies that it is “famously dull,” and that “everyone wears a suit, even in bed.”

But in an instant, Cartwright jerks you back from wisecracks and facile (if amusing) generalizations into moments of profound intimacy. Here, Lucy recalls her vigil at the bedside of her dying mother:

“Lucy knows that Mum was particualrly concerned about her, as if she was especially vulnerable. Just before she died, she held Lucy’s hand with the grip of a very small bird. The lightness of her hand spoke eloquently of the nearness of her death; it had lost all its warmth and motive power. Her eyes, deep in their last retreats like Byzantine hermits in caves, retained a broad range of expressiveness, and the anguish in them was heartbreaking.

(Reading this passage, and other like it, I felt glad and relieved that I had never pursued my youthful ambition to become a writer. I could never have crafted sentences of such crystalline beauty. It was never in my power, but I am grateful that it most definitely is in Cartwright’s.)

Although some part of this novel take place in Africa (where David Cross’s brother Guy has long resided) and in Italy, To Heaven By Water is essentially about life in today’s London. There is a sense that this great metropolis, in its headlong rush into twenty-first century modernity, has left some of its denizens in a quandary concerning the old values and verities. There is some surprisingly bad behavior by  people who, one feels, ought to have a more effective moral compass. Such is the paradox of the human condition, as it aspires to greatness while happily wallowing in venality!

The novel begins and ends with a boisterous convocation of old and dear friends. Here, at least, is one value still unquestioned and enduring.

With its compelling depiction of the confusion, contradiction, and exaltation that seem to go hand in hand with life in today’s great cities, To Heaven By Water reminded me of  The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. In that work, a group of friends (and the distinguished father of one of them) struggle to find their way in a New York City forever altered by the attacks of September 11, 2001. I greatly enjoyed Messud’s novel, but I think Cartwright’s has greater reach, and greater staying power.

I’ve read two other books by Justin Cartwright: happinessinterior They were both excellent. This author has a knack for crafting precisely apposite conclusions to his narratives. (I’ve never forgotten what happens at the end of Interior). Unsatisfactory endings are one of the chief disappointments I  regularly encounter in contemporary fiction, so I especially appreciate this gift of Cartwright’s.

As one does with all great reads, I regretted  finishing  To Heaven By Water. It was quite simply superb.


In a recent article in the Boston Globe,  Katherine A. Powers states: “It is a great mystery to me why the South African-born, London-dwelling novelist Justin Cartwright is not better known in this country.” Alas, with my cynical, near-despairing view of  the current state of  America’s cultural landscape, I don’t feel that the mystery is quite so unfathomable. Nevertheless, I appreciate the sentiment, and I appreciate Ms Powers’s insightful piece.

Justin Cartwright

Justin Cartwright


  1. “He felt like a machine, beyond danger and invulnerable. He had been here many, many times before…” – Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith: a book group discussion « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – and yielded to –  puts one in mind of the Faust legend (recently encountered in To Heaven By Water – Is everything connected, after all?). An ineluctable fate is being played out in the only […]

  2. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Hall by HilaryMantel Love and Summer by William Trevor To Heaven by Water by Justin Cartwright The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa Both Ways Is the Only Way I […]

  3. Kay W said,

    Silver lining to all that snow: plenty of time to read books on reserve that all came in at once. I read both Promise of Happiness and To Heaven by Water in a single week. Was enthralled by both. To Heaven by Water is a rare book — a novel that deals with the aging — without being sentimental or stodgy. And Promise of Happiness, IMHO, was even better. The juxtaposition of the prison experiences of the Tiffany glass expert with the anguish of her family in Cornwall was compelling. If there are more books like that out there, let it snow!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks so much for this, Kay. It means so much to me when my recommendations result in this kind of reading pleasure!

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – Suzanne Berne The House on Fortune Street – Margot Livesey The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven By Water – Justin Cartwright Intuition – Allegra Goodman The Photograph – Penelope Lively Second […]

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