by Jessica Keener
Fiction Std, 2012
Reviewed by Ken Robidoux
We've been fortunate at Connotation Press in that we've had the privilege of publishing not only the Fiction, but Creative Nonfiction of Jessica Keener. I instantly became a fan. It was, then, with great delight that I eagerly volunteered to review her novel, Night Swim.
The first novel by Keener, Night Swim is a coming of age story set in the wealthy suburbs of early 1970's Boston, MA. Sarah Kunitz is a young Jewish girl navigating her way through a series of life-changing experiences along with the rest of the Kunitz family: father, Professor Leonard Kunitz, mother Irene, and brothers Peter, Robert and Elliot.
Right from the start of chapter one I am immediately reminded of why I like Keener's prose so much. She provides all the needed detail required to create very precise mental images of the family and their surroundings with all the appropriate emotional connections in place, but she does so in an understated yet wonderfully clear, almost reserved voice. The magic is in her prose. Even in Night Swim's most direct teaching or telling postures information seems to be transmitted more by osmosis than by lecture. I realized while reading this story that it felt like I knew things about this family much in the way I know how to play Monopoly. Not because I remember ever being taught, but because as kids my buddies and I were immersed in it. The first third of this book leaves us feeling like we genuinely know the characters in this story and we find ourselves rooting for them as we would our own family. This is Keener's strong suit.
The story takes place in the early 1970's but the family dynamic of a paternally and otherwise impotent, loud, impatient father and pill popping, alcoholic, country club loving, rose gardening, stay-at-home, perfectly put together mother who wears diamonds while gardening and gave up a career in music to be a parent, coupled with cocktail parties, live in maids, and the picture of an overall privileged life this family lives creates within the story a late 1950's early 1960's sensibility. It seems as though within the family itself we're still in the 50's but the rest of the outside world is in the Vietnam, Nixon era 70's. Only oldest brother Peter seems in tune with the world outside the househould. Keener uses this juxtaposition brilliantly to create a discernible tension that starts early on and slowly builds until around page 125 or so (my copy is an uncorrected proof so I don't think the page numbers match up with the final print copy). It is at this point that the mother is killed after dropping Peter and Sarah off at a recital. Leading up to this horrific event there have been the stirrings of a tragedy and Keener doesn't let us down. We soon find out what happened was what we secretly expected might. Keener writes,
"They buried Mother five days after the car crash. The adults called her death a tragic accident -- that word again -- as if she had not been trying to leave us. But she finally succeeded, and the whole town knew...'The Cadillac stopped in the middle of the street,' an eyewitness was quoted saying in the article. 'But the light was green.' The truck barreled across the intersection, unable to brake in time, and skidded into her."
For the first 125 pages this is a gentle-handed story of a young girl from a dysfunctional, affluent family on the cusp of womanhood and all that entails. It moves slowly but with authority, comfortably establishing the characters of the story, the tone and tenor of the family, the mental state of the mother, and in general reminds us of the similarities common to most of us that have successfully navigated puberty and familial dysfunction. Once the mom is gone, however, all bets are off as Sarah strives to deal with the passing of her mother, and the alienation experienced by anyone that has lost a parent at that age and all the stares and awkward silences from peers and adults that comes with it.
Best not to give much more of the story away suffice to say Sarah must then deal with the realities of teenage life: boys and sex, finishing high school, finding herself as a singer and musician. She must also navigate her way though helping herself and her brothers cope with their mother's death, struggling through the introduction of a love interest / mother replacement for father, and the rebuilding of her family life.
As I previously mentioned, Keener's use of language is terrific, but the rhythms of this story are absolutely on point, as well. The flows and patterns of occurrence in this book are just lovely. Here are more of my favorite passages:
Sarah, on the subject of Luanne, one of her favorite live-in maids:
"She looked out the bay windows and opened her mouth in a wide "O--Oh, Lord, show me that bridge. I'm standing at the water, and I can't see that bridge." It surprised me how she talked in a whisper yet sang solid and penetrating like an oboe."
I found the image of the oboe fresh and penetrating. A nice turn I didn't expect. And Keener does that well. Her work is peppered with passages like this. Another,
"Each stem was stripped down to display the lean form of its silhouette against sunlight. And the garden, of course, in full bloom was rife with roses. Bushes and bushes of roses. She once told me: When I walk outside in the morning, I feel the plants trembling, bending toward me in greeting."
This passage, at this point in the book, nearly took my breath away. A stunning image of this suffering woman. Here's one more with a final image that is as solid as it is disturbing,
"Rows below and behind us were full. Down in front, eight cheerleaders in pleated skirts and thick sweaters skipped on a running track, scattering black dust. Two girls wore ponytails with ribbons. They smiled as if their mouths had been ripped off."
There is very little about Night Swim that reminds one of a first book. It is far more developed and well written than one might have expected. And indeed, I have it on good authority that it was quite a few years in the making. Keener's is a mature voice in a long playing format, and a welcome one. This is a beautiful and moving story. I read it in one afternoon under a sunny window and it has stayed with me ever since. There are parts that may bring a tear, but this ride is well worth the price of admission and I highly recommend it.