Night Swim/Jessica Keener: Reflections

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I took this photograph from a crowded Amtrak train, headed home to Philadelphia following a day spent in DC. I had gone to surprise my thirteen-year-old niece on her birthday, to see my sister and her family. Hidden within my bag of gifts was a single book, Night Swim, by Jessica Keener.

It's a book I'd bought months ago, a book that has always sat right there, on the top of my massive TBR. Jessica is what they call a Facebook friend, but she has always seemed, to me, far more substantial than that. When she comments on something, her words have gravitas. When she shares a moment in her life, it most often acts as a form of outreach, as an idea bigger than herself.

It was, then, with that sense of tugging familiarity that I began to read Night Swim, a debut novel for adults that has a teen at its center. Sarah Kunitz (lovers of poetry will recognize the power of her last name) is growing up in the 1970s, in a suburb of Boston, in a home of muted stresses. Her mother—beautiful, loving—occupies a buffer zone, needing pills to dull her aches, parties to bolster her confidence, a live-in maid to clear the dishes, more wine. Sarah's professor father, meanwhile, is strict and, in his own way, remote, losing control of his four children as time goes by. Sarah's mother almost dies, and a hush settles over the house. Then Sarah's mother does, indeed, die, and this hush is disturbing, tilted, suffused with a terrible drowning sound. Sarah is sixteen. She'll have to find her way. But the path ahead isn't marked.

Jessica writes quietly, forcefully, and with great knowing about remorse, wrong choices, brief releases, forever shadows. She writes with heart about a daughter's greatest loss—a mother. Just days before I read this novel, I had sat on a bench beside my own mother's grave, trying to tell her stories, wishing there was some way to get through. And so, on that train to and from DC, and then again in the quiet hours of this afternoon, I felt Jessica's own understanding of something we almost all come to face, in our lives. I felt, with this sadness, less alone.

From Night Swim, bought long ago, but perhaps read at the right time:
I turned over but repositioning my body didn't help at all. I turned back over. Mother's death became my life sentence, a different kind of imprisonment, and I realized that Eliot might be right about ghosts. This one had slipped inside me, pacing for public recognition, seeking that salve of music, a restless, circular longing for condolence and release.


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