A version of this review was originally published in Shelf Awareness, Readers’ Edition (January 24, 2012); SA‘s editors provided compensation and a galley of the novel. The cover image links to IndieBound.org. I am an IndieBound affiliate.
The narrator and titular character of Matt Bondurant’s third novel, The Night Swimmer, is Elly Bulkington. When her husband Fred is stricken with survivor’s guilt after September 11–he was supposed to be at a meeting at the World Trade Center, but traded places with a coworker–he enters, with Elly’s support, a Irish brewery’s contest to win a pub on the country’s southwestern coast. Their arrival in the small seaside town offers the couple opportunities–a new business and a stab at novel-writing for Fred, and the challenge of a new ocean for Elly, a former competitive swimmer who feels most herself when in the water.
The pursuit of these separate endeavors strains the Bulkingtons’ marriage, as Elly spends increasing amounts of time on the nearby small island of Clear obsessing over making an open-water swim to its lighthouse and Fred becomes more interested in consuming the pub’s inventory than in its business prospects. The couple is viewed with some suspicion by the natives of this remote, clannish small town, but all the same, Elly is increasingly drawn into local conflicts and intrigues, determined to unravel the island’s mysteries.
The mysteries of The Night Swimmer are not laid out or wrapped up neatly, but it doesn’t entirely matter. What stands out about this novel is its atmosphere and the voice of its narrator. Elly is a bit of an oddball herself and, therefore, not entirely out of keeping with the strangeness of her new home. Her struggles with the elements in storms and on the ocean are vividly conveyed, as are her puzzlement over Clear’s secrets and efforts to unravel them…even as what she learns makes her question whether she and Fred should even be in Ireland at all. Matt Bondurant gives The Night Swimmer a pervasive sense of foreboding and a final act that hits with the impact of an Irish gale.
In a small town on the southern coast of Ireland, an isolated place only frequented by fishermen and the occasional group of bird-watchers, Fred and Elly Bulkington, newly arrived from Vermont having won a pub in a contest, encounter a wild, strange land shaped by the pounding storms of the North Atlantic, as well as the native resistance to strangers. As Fred revels in the life of a new pubowner, Elly takes the ferry out to a nearby island where anyone not born there is called a “blow-in.” To the disbelief of the locals, Elly devotes herself to open-water swimming, pushing herself to the limit and crossing unseen boundaries that drive her into the heart of the island’s troubles—the mysterious tragedy that shrouds its inhabitants and the dangerous feud between an enigmatic farmer and a powerful clan that has no use for outsiders.
The poignant unraveling of a marriage, the fierce beauty of the natural world, the mysterious power of Irish lore, and the gripping story of strangers in a strange land rife with intrigue and violence—The Night Swimmer is a novel of myriad enchantments by a writer of extraordinary talent.