Night Swim

  • Review
January 9, 2013

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.

Discussion Questions