by Jessica Keener
Fiction Studio Books
There are certain books that have an intangible quality that transcends the nuances and the mechanics of good writing and literature. Such books somehow have, through their language and the emotions they evoke on the page, the ability to transport the reader right back to a pivotal and critical time in one’s life.
Night Swim is that kind of book for me.
Those of you who know my personal history will know why Night Swim resonated so deeply (especially in February, especially this week). This is the coming-of-age story of 16-year old Sarah Kunitz, growing up in a dysfunctional family in an affluent suburb of Boston in 1970, and grieving the sudden, tragic loss of her mother. Just substitute Philadelphia for Boston, 1985 for 1970, father for mother … and Sarah Kunitz becomes Me, minus some of the dysfunction and a couple of details – and one significant storyline that happens to Sarah in the aftermath of her mother’s death.
Jessica Keener captures so precisely the inner emotions of a teenager who has lost a parent that it is natural to assume (as I did) that this element of Night Swim is completely autobiographical. It is not (it’s based on Keener’s experience with a close friend) and to be able to render that so perfectly in fiction is just one of the reasons why this makes Keener such a talent and a writer worth watching.
Keener has the ability to seamlessly change the novel’s tone to fit the scene, and that’s a trait that sometimes even much more supposedly seasoned writers have difficulty accomplishing. For example, while reading the descriptions of Sarah’s mother’s funeral and shiva, my initial thoughts were that the tone felt flat … and then I thought: of course it feels flat. It needs to feel that way because at such a time your world IS flattened. YOU ARE emotionally flattened.
What gives Night Swim its authenticity are the little, minuscule details surrounding a parent’s death (or really, any significant loss) that Keener weaves into Sarah’s story.The way teachers pause when saying your name while taking attendance when you come back to school the week after your parent dies. The quick, stealth-like glances that other students give you in the hallway right before their eyes avert from yours.
And if the little details contained within give Night Swim its authenticity, it is the big themes that gives Jessica Keener’s debut novel the power to become one of the defining coming-of-age novels of our time and the potential to become among the classics in this genre. There is an element of Night Swim that truly feels reminiscent of the work of Judy Blume, and knowing what a revered icon in literature Ms. Blume is (to myself included), I don’t say that nor draw that comparison lightly. But it’s there, and it exists, and although I am not a big young adult novel (YA) reader, of those such novels I have read I cannot recall any modern YA/coming-of-age novel that has so poignantly reminded me of what I believe to be the standard-bearer.
Because like Judy Blume, Jessica Keener tackles the big themes and the larger societal, cultural issues – the dysfunctional disconnect of a family before and after a tragic loss, anti-Semitism, racism, Vietnam, feminism, one’s emerging sexuality and personal experimentation – and connects them throughout Night Swim in a way that isn’t heavy-handed nor patronizing to her reader.
“Mr. Bingham told us to keep in mind what we learned about molecules and to turn to the section on ecosystems and the evolution of swamps. He looked at me, but then he talked in his usual stern way about beavers, and trees and water interacting as one system. ‘ The deletion of one affects the processing of the others,’ he said. ‘Mr. Beaver makes his dam, the water pools up, the tree roots begin to rot.’ He lifted his bearded chin, perused the row of students then looked at me again and said, ‘all things connected,’ in a surprisingly gentle voice.” pg. 146
If there’s one over-riding theme or message in Night Swim, it’s that of the connections we make with those we love and what happens when that goes missing and we seek substitutes. We see this with each member of the Kunitz family, each of whom finds solace in something separate but absolutely essential to him or herself in order to cope with the family’s dysfunction as they grieve and heal in the loss of their mother.
For their father, it’s a relationship with a younger colleague. For Sarah’s brother, Robert, it’s nurturing his fish and delving into reading a series of time travel books; for Elliot, the youngest brother, it’s a communion with a vast menagerie of plastic animals, lining them up in circles by patterns, delving into an imaginary world.
“It might have been easy to think that Elliot didn’t notice unruly behavior precisely because it was all he had known. But I knew that wasn’t so. He simply chose to ignore certain aspects of others’ personalities. Robert treated Elliot poorly whenever Elliot came in to look at his fish. The fishbowl was a magnet for Elliot. It held a transcendent light that captured a silence and an intensity that Elliot identified with. …. In this way, Elliot possessed weight, self-knowledge, and a natural understanding of the multiple ways other people responded to the same stimulus.
So it was that Elliot also had a way of accepting Mother’s death, albeit, not without a sage’s wisdom and sad face. He accepted the illogicality of it. In his nine-year-old mind that had matured emotionally beyond the clumsiness of his body, he said that God was like clay and that all things on earth came in different shapes – including Mother – and that Mother had simply been remolded, but still remained a part of us. He was certain of this.
“Mother visits me after school,” he said.
I sat on the floor of his room, next to the windowsill, and watched him line up a group of dogs and cats in a circle. He alternated cat, dog, cat, dog. I didn’t know what to say to this. What he said scared but comforted me.
“She came with the wind.”
“That’s beautiful, Elliot.”
“You don’t believe me.”
I didn’t know if I did but I felt her puzzling silence, her completely muted presence, an unspoken puzzle I had not solved.
“Yes and no. I don’t know. It’s confusing.”
If these vespers, these harbingers of changing weather added up to some kind of ghostlike substance, then I did believe. But I doubted. Doubt obscured me. The question mark would remain. Yet sitting next to Elliot calmed me. If he could manage so could I.
What I began to learn, though, is that the question mark – my mother – stayed with me, followed me wherever I went. She floated inside, a buoy without a boat.” (pg. 168-169)
As the mom of a child with autism, I adored Elliot’s character and Keener’s gentle, sensitive rendering of him – and knowing that Night Swim is set in 1970 when diagnosis criteria and services weren’t what they are today, wondered how Elliot fared as an adult.
Keener gives her reader a small glimpse into that world, thankfully – albeit a small one. (I admit, I wanted more.) Night Swim opens with an adult Sarah receiving an email from a former neighbor who has come across her music online and sampled the links. “Mickey Fineburg’s email brings everything back again.” (prelude)
For Sarah, her escape and connection (one that she shares with her brother Peter) comes in the form of music, which plays a predominant role in Night Swim and is again used to bridge that connection with Sarah and her mother. (Her mother was a violinist before having children and developing arthritis.)
“By the time I reached the last lines of the first stanza, and love – will steer the stars – I had left the auditorium on a solo ride, as if I were in a hot-air balloon drifting over high branches and the chorus like leaves rustling below. Together we sang ‘This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” I stood taller, turning my palm out, offering up my heart. It was here, in this moment of singing, that I shed my shadows and ghosts.” (pg. 182)
That concept of being able to shed shadows and ghosts, even temporarily, is what gives Night Swim its heft as a novel. While there are elements in our lives that can work wonders to help soothe our pain, it is always there – always present in the form of a reminder, in a memory, a Friend Request, in an email from a former neighbor coming across the country in the midnight hours. Our past is part and parcel of what makes us the people we are.
All things connected.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for connecting me with Night Swim and Jessica Keener, and for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. I was not compensated in any other way except for a free copy of the book.
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copyright 2011, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.