Review: Night Swim by Jessica Keener

  • Paperback: 284 pages
  • Publisher: Fiction Studio Books (January 10, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1936558262
  • Source: Publisher

Sarah Kunitz, sixteen years old, lives in a suburb of Boston in the 1970s. To those outside her home she has the perfect life. Her parents are wealthy, drive expensive cars, even hire live-in maids to help with the children. The life inside Sarah’s home is completely different, however. Her “perfect” mother self-medicates, she and her siblings seek solace from their parents fighting by listening to music together. Her world really begins to change when her mother, intoxicated, drives the family car into a local lake. Rather than dealing with the problem, the family ignores it:

After the arrival of the new car, no one mentioned the accident anymore as if we’d made a silent family pact to avoid it; and, I didn’t know what else to say to her. She’d already left me. What do you say to someone you’ve lost?

Any remnant of normalcy is washed away when her mother is killed in a car “accident.”  Her father, always pretty self-absorbed, almost immediately begins an affair with a younger colleague. Sarah deals with the loss by leaping into sexual relationships with various boys.

Night Swim, at the core, is a blunt and brutal examination of the effects of loss and denial on a family. Keener avoid discussing difficult topics like drug abuse, anti-Semitism, and loss. Like Sarah, she leaps head-first into the portrayal of these issues, providing the reader with a true-to-life examination of this family.  The reader has a front road seat to the road to chaos that is Sarah’s life.  She’s at the age where she requires a strong female presence in her life, and unfortunately she does not have that in her mother. Instead, she seeks this guidance from the most unlikely of sources, one of the many live-in maids that steps into her life. We watch as she goes from a shy, dependent girl to a strong, vocal young woman. She learns from the many mistakes she takes on this journey and becomes a better person for it.

Keener’s prose is spectacular, almost poetic. I found myself rereading many of the passages just to experience the beauty of her written word. She gives the reader the gift of a wonderful, honest, coming-of-age story. At just under 300 pages it is not a long read, but one that will resonate. Recommended.

Warning: Scenes of a sexual nature, mildly graphic.

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