Friday, April 20, 2012

Night Swim by Jessica Keener: a Review

Scanning the shelves of a library or a bookstore one might think coming of age is only a male experience. Of course it is not and in Night Swim Jessica Keener sensitively tells the story of a young girl unable to live with or without her mother. It is a beautiful story that I plan to recommend to my new book club.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in the suburbs of Boston, Sarah Kunitz struggles in high school with a mother who solves most of her troubles with alcohol and pills and a father who is more obsessed with his students at a local university than his daughter and three sons.

Set in the 1970s, the novel uses music as the force that ties Sarah with her older brother, Peter. When her beautiful voice is discovered by her music teacher, music also becomes a force that gives Sarah a much needed sense of worth.

It is not enough, however, to bring her closer to her mother, something Sarah wants desperately; something she continues to attempt even after her mother is gone by caring for her precious rose garden.

I have a friend who has suffered chronic bouts of depression for decades and I know, first hand, how debilitating it is for both the adult and their children. Keener does a masterful job of portraying this terrible condition in all its sadness and ugliness.

It is long after her mother's death in a car accident and long after several broken relationships, one resulting in an abortion, that Sarah comes to a place where she can stand on her own.

A poignant portrayal of a time and place that focuses, not on the notorious issues of the day--the Vietnam War, drugs, hippies and peace marches--, but on the more mundane issues within the walls of suburban households that is forced to move forward despite their personal problems. Keener's portrayal of  how Sarah, as well as her three brothers, each deal with their pain is both beautiful and sensitive.