The gorgeous rural Irish scenery that suffuses Matt Bondurant’s third novel, The Night Swimmer, often takes precedence over the marriage imploding in front of it, but the background provides more than adequate cover for the novel’s cynical take on a vacation gone bad. At first, American couple Fred and Elly are all too ready to ditch hard decisions about their future and the demands of Fred’s troubled, erratic father after they win an Irish pub in a beer-company contest. While the coastal town of Baltimore in western County Cork proves more remote than they expected, the move reinvigorates Fred into working on a long-planned novel, and lets Elly pursue her hobby of long-distance open-water swims, to the locals’ puzzlement. But with paying customers limited to a few hardy tourists passing through on birding tours as winter sets in, Elly wonders if their idyll is as much of an escape as she hoped, especially after hearing less-than-savory rumors from the other non-native “blow-ins” about the family who owns most of the town.
Elly’s consciousness of the ways she and Fred played at adulthood before chance took them to Ireland—shaped, she admits, by a surfeit of John Cheever and the cushy embrace of their professorial friends—mirrors Bondurant’s open scorn for his protagonists and their affectations, but Elly’s largely predictable reactions to rural life and the tides of change that the couple represents in the town’s eyes initially relegates her to the stock role of disaffected wife, for all her clever turns of phrase. Instead, the landscape dominates Bondurant’s focus: Elly’s swimming is a convenient vehicle for the exploration of murky, wreck-filled waters and uninhabited islands, but the novel reveals little about why she would be drawn to such a conveniently dangerous hobby.
But deep into The Night Swimmer, the slowly stirring unease rolls into a force that challenges the growing separation between Fred and Elly for narrative attention, just as their characters have sharpened and deepened enough to be worthy of notice. With the suspense residing less in who means the couple harm and more in what form that harm will take, The Night Swimmer fulfills, in its own time, the promise written into its slow, beautiful build-up, bringing its human dramas up to the level of its memorable setting.