Book Review: ‘The Night Swimmer’ by Matt Bondurant

Book: The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant
Reviewed by: Consuelo

When I picked up The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, the premise of an American couple winning a pub on the Irish coast seemed unassuming enough. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is a gripping, richly layered work of fiction.

Arriving in Ireland, Elly and Fred Bulkington receive a cold (or nonexistent) welcome from the locals. Their marriage is put to the test as they both cope in different ways; Fred immerses himself in the bar and writing a novel, and Elly retreats to the island off the coast where she becomes obsessed with swimming in the surrounding ocean. There is a subtle, unsettling feeling as Elly attempts to understand the politics of the mysterious islanders and their strange connection to the land and water. There are hints of Hitchcock in the way that something always feels off-kilter, but not in an overbearing or obvious way.

The suspense is deftly balanced by vivid descriptions of the landscape. The passages in which Elly swim are among my favorite, as they depict the power of nature and her personal relationship with the water and her own body. I have no experience with deep-sea swimming, but with Bondurant’s telling I could feel the intensity of those moments when she plunges into the open ocean.

The Night Swimmer is also a beautiful and unsentimental portrayal of love in its different stages. It flashes back to pivotal moments in Fred and Elly’s relationship as the reader learns just how they got to be at this place, struggling to stay connected even while they feel a profound love for each other.

I was so impressed by The Night Swimmer that I immediately dove into Bondurant’s previous book, The Wettest County in the World, a gritty novel about bootlegging during Prohibition based on his true family story.  Again I was surprised, this time by how his flexible writing style can adapt to such different subject matter. I can’t even guess what he will choose to write about next, but I eagerly await whatever it might be.

Matt Bondurant will speak & sign The Night Swimmer at BookPeople on Thursday, January 12, 7p.

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