Night Swim begins with a flash forward to present day California, showing Sarah Kunitz alone in her home, her children grown and her husband away on business. She receives an e-mail from the boy she grew up living beside, a boy she kissed under a broken pool table in her basement. Quickly, the story shifts back.
Jessica Keener’s debut novel follows the Kunitz family, living in 1970s suburbia, privileged and disintegrating. Each member of the family embodies a different American stereotype. Leonard, the father, is brilliant and aggressive, tortured. Irene, the mother, is proper and sophisticated, deeply unsatisfied. The four children all have their crosses to bear, too, which they do. Narrated by Sarah, the only daughter, Night Swim documents a family’s unraveling, a frank and intense portrait of grief and growth.
As a narrator, Sarah is distant. She observes the people around her, her family and few friends, watching them and the roles they play, keeping herself as detached as possible. She escapes through music with her brother Peter, the oldest. They sing and play guitar in Peter’s attic bedroom, perched on top of the world, young and well-off, not realizing the fall is inevitable. Over the summer in which the book partially takes place, Sarah takes courses at Stonehill College. In her literature class, they read The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco. Regarding the play, Sarah says that, “To me, the disconnection in the language, the odd behavior between adults, made perfect sense to me, reflecting the impenetrable world of my father and mother I so often witnessed, living in separate spheres, joined only by drinks and lighted cigarettes” (191). This is only one example of Keener’s sharp observations.
The gap caused by Sarah’s distance is never entirely bridged and, because of this, certain aspects of the plot feel underdeveloped. The characters, though, are three-dimensional, abandoning cliche to become human. Describing the two youngest children, Keener writes, “Elliott looked a foot shorter than Robert, soft, round and vulnerable; whereas Robert had become physically threatening, his shoulders widening like a shield” (213). Grief transforms the Kunitz family after Irene dies in a car accident, Peter fleeing to California, Leonard retreating into himself and his work, beginning an affair with a younger colleague at the college where he is a professor. Sarah dives into young love and lust, maybe swimming out a bit too far, eventually finding herself in territory she cannot navigate alone.
Whether or not Irene’s death was a suicide is a question that haunts Night Swim. One of Jessica Keener’s many strengths is her ability to write of traumatic events with lucidity and lyricism. Sarah attempts to heal her wounds, immersing herself in schoolwork and memory. She lets a boy named Anthony walk her and her friend Sophie home from a football game. She lets a boy named Gregory lure her into the forest the summer she takes classes at Stonehill. She sings. Her mother is around every corner.
The word “nonchalance” appears often. Keener uses it to describe Margaret, a girl Sarah becomes friends with early in the school year, who smokes cigarettes and kisses strangers. She uses it to describe Betsy James, the girl who drives Sarah to Stonehill everyday, who poses for one of the photography teachers in the afternoons. And finally, she uses it to describe Sarah, seeing Margaret for the first time that summer, writing that she was “surprised by my nonchalance, which I had first modeled after her” (234).
Keener spent eighteen years writing Night Swim, returning no doubt to her childhood and events she witnessed growing up. How much she has in common with Sarah is unbeknownst to the reader. Her style is subtle, Sarah’s character progressing slowly and then all at once, the narrative developing with her, retaining its youthful quality while maintaining a certain wisdom she has even in the beginning. There is a balance of naivete and maturity, Sarah managing to be both impulsive and deeply compassionate. It’s an effective rendering. With Night Swim, Keener has emerged as a force to be reckoned with.