Book Review Time: The Night Swimmers

My book review process has developed into a set pattern that works really well for me. I read a book of my choosing (although I have accepted submissions in the past.) Once I’ve finished, I give myself a day or two. Just a little time to let the full story sink in. An opportunity to measure the highs and lows. Analyze character development and plot. Evaluate language, style, and execution. Uncover any deeper meaning beyond the obvious. And determine my overall impression of the work. Although I’ll occasionally jot down notes, this process that I’ve developed takes place primarily in my head as I go about my daily life. Then, when the time is right, and I have a couple of uninterrupted hours to myself, I’ll take everything I’ve gathered and write/edit my review. For the most part, this is how it plays out. That is, until 2 weeks ago…

I read a book called, The Night Swimmers, by Peter Rock. I dove in with no specific expectations. However, the title did appeal to me; the idea of swimming at night. It’s a practice that seems both thrilling and absolutely terrifying. The Night Swimmers is described as an “autobiographical novel,” a genre that I must admit I don’t fully understand. Is it a memoir with a bit of artistic license? Or literary fiction with a dash of true life? There’s a spectrum and I’m not sure where this book falls within it. But what I do know with certainty is that The Night Swimmers is a beautifully haunting work of literature.

In one excerpt, the narrator, in an email correspondence with a former girlfriend, writes: “Maybe we should be told when we won’t see someone for twenty years or more, or ever again? A simple alert from the sky?” This sentiment encapsulates The Night Swimmers, a novel about memories, missed opportunities, and self-reflection. The narrator, a married 40-something with two kids, is looking back on his past. He is especially drawn to the year 1995, when as a recent college graduate, he spent the summer with his parents at their lakefront property in Wisconsin. Floundering and emotionally inert, he struggles to find his place in the world and his voice as a writer. He takes solace in long distance evening swims in Lake Michigan. This specific summer is significant because it is marked by his introduction to a new neighbor, a widow named Mrs. Abel. Upon meeting, the narrator quickly discovers she too shares a passion for night-time swimming. They begin to meet secretly and set off in the dark waters surrounding the Peninsula; rarely speaking yet innately swimming in concert. Their relationship isn’t clearly defined. The narrator is reticent and self-conscious. Mrs. Abel, although authentic in her carriage and behavior, is an inscrutable presence. Their summer together will culminate in a strange and mysterious occurrence. One that will further complicate their already complicated association. In revisiting this time, the narrator shares with the reader the person he once was through letters, photos, and the narrator’s own outlines for potential stories. This story idea caught my particular attention with its hint of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”: “A person who sits in their house and practices different expressions, coupled with someone who lives nearby and watches, drawing conclusions.”

The Night Swimmers, in addition to retrospection, provides a glimpse into the narrator’s present day existence as a published writer, professor, and happily married family man. Although he’s carved out a pretty nice life for himself, the questions remain. The narrator will have to navigate through deep and perplexing waters, in search of answers to unlock the mystery of that lost summer.

I read The Night Swimmers in one sitting. Its quiet power is gradual and unpretentious. And it isn’t until you reach the end that you realize its profound impact. It’s a mesmerizing work, written with thoughtfulness and just the right amount of peculiarity. I needed some time after reading The Night Swimmers to let the story and the emotions settle. Even now, it’s difficult to find the words to express what a meaningful reading experience it was for me. It’s a lovely novel that tugs at the heart and burrows into the soul.


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