Books captivate readers for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s a character that reminds you of someone you know or someone you want to know. Maybe it’s a setting that you’ve always dreamt of. Maybe the plot engages your attention fully, refusing to let go even as it twists and turns.
If you’re lucky, a book captivates you because of its author’s voice and its author’s awareness of how to build character relationships and how to maintain suspense. Readers of Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer can consider themselves among the lucky.
Bondurant centers his story on an American couple who win a pub in Ireland. Many people might take the cash equivalent of the prize, but Elly and Fred make the decision to leave everything and everyone they know behind. As Fred restores the pub in Baltimore, Elly spends her time swimming in the waters off Cape Clear Island.
Elly has a minor genetic abnormality (an evenly distributed, thin layer of fat) that allows her to spend long amounts of time in cold water. Her communion with the ocean is one of the strong points of Bondurant’s writing, likely because he is a long-distance swimmer himself.
A side note – the locations in The Night Swimmer are real, and images are available on the web if Bondurant’s word paintings make you want more.
Another strong point of the novel is the bond between Elly and Fred. Bondurant doesn’t describe their love in over-the-top prose. He lets his characters’ actions speak for themselves. It’s clear these two love each other, which makes it slightly confusing when events of the novel begin to overtake their relationship.
Elly and Fred begin to feel the power of the Corrigan family which controls most of the commerce and culture of Baltimore and Cape Clear. The Americans are outsiders and Elly’s growing awareness of the undercurrents on Cape Clear make them more of a target. Fred retreats into a novel he’s trying to write and neglects the needs of the bar. Elly retreats into her swimming and getting to know Cape Clear. The two start to drift apart, but Bondurant never fully explains why.
It’s a jarring flaw in the novel. Other plot points go unexplained. For some of them, this works – Elly starts to learn about mysteries on the island and she may not need all the answers. Some of the island’s mysteries though cry out for explanations, at least for the reader.
Highgate, a blind goat farmer who becomes central to the story, may be more than he seems. As may the Fastnet lighthouse, which exerts a strange pull on Elly.
It’s to Bondurant’s credit though that these flaws are minor. The story is told from Elly’s point of view, and Bondurant never once drops the female perspective, a feat not all male authors can pull off. The mood he creates throughout The Night Swimmer pulls a reader in. His descriptions of setting and character are active. Readers experience the setting as Elly does, not as a laundry list of flora and fauna. Even when Elly befriends a visiting birder (who offers his own threat to her marriage), her exposure to the numerous species excites the readers, rather than becoming a mind-numbing list of bird names.
The novel builds exquisitely to a series of climaxes before ending on what may seem an abrupt note. Perhaps that’s an area for improvement in Bondurant’s writing. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of not wanting to find yourself on the last pages of a book.