There aren’t too many mainstream novels with plots that hinge on open water swimming, so I was excited when Jen alerted me to the new book The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant (Scribner, 2012; hardcover, 288 pages). Set on the Irish coast and told from the wife’s perspective, this is the story of an American couple who move to Ireland after winning, of all things, a bar. While Fred runs the bar (or rather, tries to run the bar), Elly spends a lot of time on a nearby island and in its chilly seas.
The water is a strong character, figuring in Elly’s swimming, ferry travels, sailing excursions, and island storms. With no disrespect to pools, I agree with her description in one of many evocative swim passages: “Anyone who has swum in a pool understands the palpable difference between the sensations of swimming in a few feet of water and in twelve feet or more. It shouldn’t feel different, but it does. It is the knowledge of that vastness beneath you that cannot be shaken or forgotten, something about the drastic proportions and ratios involved.” The writing is informed by the author’s background as a swimmer, and I was happy to see that he also consulted with Ned Denison, a resident of Ireland and open water swim community force who is a friend to NYC Swim.
The story had enough quirky characters, mysterious sightings, neighborly tensions, and swimming bliss to keep me turning the pages. However, when I got to the last page I still wasn’t sure about a lot of things that may or may not have happened. As Jen just wrote to me, “What the WHAT was that ending?” My experience after seeing the 1968 pool movie The Swimmer last fall was similar. That was based on a John Cheever story, and Cheever figures prominently in this new book as well. Maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s Cheever, but all the pieces don’t quite add up to a whole.
Had I been the editor, I also would have insisted on a map. The narrative has such a strong sense of place within a small geographic area, so why not add tangibility to the various locations: pub, lighthouse, harbor, etc.? (Off-topic plug: This is one feature I really appreciate in Henning Mankell’s Wallander mysteries.)
The book was billed as including “the poignant unraveling of a marriage,” but that is one thing I’m pretty sure did not happen. Although the marriage changed and ultimately ended, its demise was not due to an unraveling–so if that’s what you’re looking for, choose a different book.
At any rate, I recommend this as a good read. If you come away with a better understanding of what happened, please fill me in.