Review of The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant
By Tim Chamberlain
The Night Swimmer, the latest book by Matt Bondurant (author of The Wettest County in the World), is much like the narrator Elly’s favorite hobby: a dark swim through a choppy ocean. It is a haunting tale of love, intrigue and obsession, tinged with regret throughout.
Bondurant tells the story of Elly and Fred, an American couple that wins an Irish pub and moves there to run it. Of course, these things are never quite that simple–the locals don’t really take to the American “blow-ins”–and this novel follows the triumphs and tragedies that result from their move across the world.
Essentially The Night Swimmer is a love story, the story of Elly and Fred and their grand adventure to the remotest part of Ireland, an adventure that eventually goes wrong. However, to simply call it a love story would do it a grave injustice, as Bondurant deftly weaves in history, mysteries, local politics, beautiful descriptions of this lonely part of Ireland, the exhilaration and loneliness of swimming in the open ocean, even the attacks of 9/11. This makes The Night Swimmer a difficult book to categorize, but it’s driving force is always the dynamic between Fred and Elly.
Early on, Bondurant establishes the main tone of the book, a palpable sense of dread, by having Elly admit in the prologue that she is ashamed, and she needs to be careful with her tone. As you then read about their love story and the story of winning the pub, you begin to wonder just what there is to dread. It is a most unsettling feeling, as you read about how much these two love each other and wait for the other shoe to drop. Drop it does, however, and the story certainly takes some surprising turns as we find out what exactly is going on.
Bondurant gives us a lot of memorable characters, but the location of Cape Clear becomes almost a character unto itself. Elly, who has been swimming her entire life and has a condition that allows her to stay in cold water longer than most, repeatedly describes the stark, dangerous and beautiful conditions as she takes her long ocean swims that give the book its title. It is an example of the way Bondurant has created a very real world for his characters to inhabit, and it shows that he is just as careful with his settings as he is his characters.
The Night Swimmer is a sad, touching tale that refuses to be easily categorized. Since it is difficult to put a genre on this book, let me just say this: The Night Swimmer is for fans of excellent writing, as Bondurant has deftly woven a complex and thought-provoking story.