It’s Dublin, 1976, the summer of the heatwave, and at nine years old, Megan is happy. She hangs out with her next-door neighbour, Daniel, whilst her talented mother, Gemma, spends her days painting in the attic. Megan is fatherless but feels no lack; her live-in grandmother picks up the slack, and she’s encircled with love. Besides, Daniel’s father isn’t around either; he went to work one day and forgot to come home.
Megan is aware that life, for her mother, hasn’t been easy. She had to fight the church and people’s attitudes in order to keep her baby. Megan is proud of this bravery, and loves that her mother didn’t give her up just to give into what others wanted and to keep the shame away.
When an American family rent the garden flat, the dynamic changes. The wife, Judith brings an otherworldliness to the Rathgar household; she fills the air with her exotic, spicy cooking, and Megan, initially beguiled by the sulky yet sophisticated 12-year-old Beth, looks more critically at Daniel. And when Beth’s father, Chris, first sets eyes on Gemma, Megan is aware of something shifting.
But she likes Chris. He’s kind to her and to Daniel, too. He takes them both on a trip. She starts to realise what it would be like to have a father around. And that makes her think about her own. She’s curious, but when Beth pushes her on the subject, and harangues Daniel too, she’s distraught.
The days assume a pattern. The children hang around the garden drinking homemade lemonade. They watch the Russian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci as she captures hearts at the Olympics. Wasps drown in jam jar traps; a next-door neighbour lies out on a blanket reading her way through the contents of the library.
The nights are rather different. That’s when the wine comes out, the music goes on, as the heat breaks down inhibitions. Watching her mother, noticing Gemma’s new dress and earrings, and the way she lights up around Chris, Megan feels uneasy.
But it’s not just Gemma who is changing. Led by Beth, Megan is flouting the family rules. There’s an illicit trip to buy ice cream; there’s an expedition to the park; there are visits to the canal. Whilst appalled at the older girl’s attitude to authority – when Megan, herself has been taught to respect adults, not suspect them – she falls in with the plans to go ‘Night Swimming,’ at first figuratively, then literally.
Megan’s life feels complicated. She’s pulled between her easy friendship with Daniel, and the increasingly spiky one with Beth. The tension leaks further. The Americans, with their openness, their habit of saying it all as it as is, of asking difficult questions and raising their voices in anger, seem alien to the Irish who prefer to keep their secrets private, because, if you don’t face up to something, maybe it will just go away.
And that is the main theme of this sumptuously written novel. It’s innocence versus knowing; kindness versus selfishness; and of how, when these sensibilities clash, and events come to a tragic head, nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Night Swimming is narrated in the voice of the nine-year-old Megan, but the words are filtered through her adult self. A charming nostalgic tale, with prose that positively drips with lushness, it conveys the atmosphere of heat quite beautifully, evoking comparisons with Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave.
I loved this novel for its portrait of a girl on the cusp of teenagerhood who loses her childhood innocence, and for its look at friendship and lust, and for the authentic feel of seventies Dublin. And if, at times the leisurely pace stretched a tad too far, with a tendency for repetition, that’s a mere quibble. I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to recapture the sensations of an Ireland transformed by sunshine.
Night Swimming. Mercier Press: €17. Kindle: €4.02.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 12th October.
© Sue J Leonard. 2019