Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Book Review: The Night Swim

By Jami Denison

Although I’ve been a huge fan of crime thrillers and mysteries since I picked up my first Agatha Christie at age 10, I’ve never really gotten into the true crime genre. To me, it just seems a little ghoulish to follow along on a story centered around a real dead woman (and they are almost always women). I feel the same way about crime podcasts, even though many of those are geared toward freeing a person unjustly accused. Megan Goldin has followed up her breathless debut thriller, The Escape Room, with The Night Swim, a novel that centers around a true crime podcast, and while the story it covers is strong, I found it had many of the same issues that keep me from enjoying podcasts in real life. 

Rachel Krall is a true crime podcaster credited with setting an innocent man free. Seeking to top herself in the third season of her show, she travels to an insulated seaside town to report both sides of a trial in which the 16-year-old granddaughter of the town’s police chief has accused an 18-year-old champion swimmer of rape. But when she arrives, Rachel receives a letter asking her to look into the case of Jenny Stills, a 16-year-old who accidentally drowned 25 years ago. Jenny’s younger sister Hannah remains convinced that she was murdered. At first, Rachel is annoyed and a little scared by the woman who stalks her anonymously. But as she carefully follows the rape case and receives more letters, Rachel begins to think that Hannah is right. 

Both stories have sensational elements, and just like The Escape Room, feel very timely. But the choices Goldin makes to tell the tale result in a slow pace and a slackening of tension. Rachel, a third-person protagonist, has no personal connection to either story, and remains a cipher throughout the book, lacking any emotional or personal life. A reporter in the true sense of the word, she rarely feels anything strongly – not passion, not fear, not outrage. Her careful interviewing and sleuthing are described in minute detail, which slows down the story enormously. The podcasts themselves are designed to get listeners to tune in again, which result in a manipulative feel—for instance, Rachel draws out the circumstances of the rape into so many separate episodes that it becomes enormously frustrating for the reader/listener. 

When Hannah takes over, the novel becomes much more personal. Hannah’s point of view is shown in the letters she writes to Rachel, describing her life with Jenny and the cancer-stricken single mom who died soon after Jenny did. The family was poor, and Jenny was a victim many times before her death. Hannah is too traumatized to approach Rachel directly, which is unfortunate as it keeps Hannah from becoming a real person and blocks an avenue in which Rachel could have become more well-rounded. 

Despite these narrative frustrations, the two plots are compelling enough that readers will want to finish the book to see how everything ties together. And in this insulated beach town, the ties may be a little too obvious. Both threads are resolved if not ended; the 16-year-old rape victim may never recover, but Rachel looks forward to the next season of her podcast. 

Readers who see a similarity between Rachel’s podcast case and the Brock Turner trial may wish to check out Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. While fiction provides structure and closure, some subjects deserve the emotional exploration that only a memoir can provide.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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