Fiction Studio Books
If you’ve ever immersed yourself in inky, nighttime waters you know that the feeling is disorienting, terrifying, and exhilarating. So too, is the sixteenth year of life for Sarah Kunitz, the protagonist in Jessica Keener’s first novel, Night Swim.
It’s 1970. Sarah’s life in a swanky suburb of Boston includes flirting with the hunky Italian guy on the football team, enduring fights between her older brother and her overbearing patriarchal father, being irritated with her fantasy-loving younger brother, and attending strained family Passover celebrations. It’s typically dysfunctional.
But that all changes when Sarah’s mother, a beautiful and broken musician, heads into an alcohol-assisted tailspin that ends in her death. The strings that have always tied Sarah’s world together fray, and then unravel.
Through the year, Sarah learns to live with wounds that will never fully heal. She realizes, “the question mark – my mother – stayed with me, followed me wherever I went. She floated inside, a buoy without a boat.” And in the process, Sarah gains the maturity and strength to gather up some of the strings of her old life, and weave a new one.
Keener understands deeply that scene writing creates powerful moments for her characters. We learn of Sarah’s irritation, fear, reticence, and desire not through discussion, but through her actions and interactions with others. And Keener’s writing is lovely; she manages to build sentences that are both precise and ornate. While Keener’s Night Swim tells of a girl who has lost her bearings, her hold on her novel is both assured and poised.