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The Night Swimmers

Review

The Night Swimmers

In this autobiographical novel, Peter Rock endeavors to recreate the summer of 1994, when he was an unemployed 26-year-old writer, living with his parents in their summer cabin on Lake Michigan, and evading the question of what he was going to do next.

At night, he swims miles in the vast, slippery, dark lake waters, despite wayward currents and other hazards. “I could not be pulled astray, I had no investment in my destination.” One night, he meets another night swimmer --- the mysterious Mrs. Abel, a recent widow who lives down the shore from his family. Soon they are meeting at the end of her dock and night-swimming (skinny-dipping) together. In the water they are easy together. Out of the water is a different story. “Did she want me to follow her, down the pier and across the beach and up into her cabin? And what would happen, once we were inside that space together? Would we talk? Would we climb the ladder into her loft?”

By the end of this summer, Claire Abel has disappeared leaving no forwarding address, and it’s fair to say that her memory haunts the author throughout his life.

"This novel has as many layers, drop-offs, storms, wrecks and submerged themes as the great Lake Michigan itself."

Juxtaposed with this narrative is the present tense of a middle-aged writer, married with two young girls, who is irretrievably drawn back into memories of this one summer 20 years earlier. He brings his own children to the same shoreline woods that he haunted as a child and then a young man. He indulges their fantasies and his own, seeking out the spaces he inhabited so long ago --- sometimes finding them, sometimes not. These spaces --- Mrs. Abel’s cabin, an old beached fishing boat, his own Red Cabin --- figure largely in the story both past and present, and the author spends a lot of time just getting into them and feeling what he feels. If the door to Mrs. Abel’s cabin is locked, he simply goes down to another door that leads to the space underneath the cabin. He goes in. He lifts the trap door. He hears her breathing. He retreats.

Rock recounts some of the other spaces he inhabited as a young writer, seeking solitude and corresponding with a long-term girlfriend that he never gets around to breaking up with. He spends a winter in a tiny, funky old house in a small Utah town. “Here I forget what time it is. I lose pens, pencils, books, scissors. The woman who owns the house told me that a ghost lives here, and that the ghost is a little girl. I hope that this is true.” Rock is trying to figure out his young self, seeking answers in ephemera he has saved, like old letters and notes for stories. “I was continually searching for a scene in which I’d be able to function properly, rather than finding or recognizing or creating the reasons to stay.”

Without giving too much away, in the present, back on the lake shore, there is resolution and yet another tantalizing mystery. This novel has as many layers, drop-offs, storms, wrecks and submerged themes as the great Lake Michigan itself. In the afterword, Rock thanks his editor for urging him to “make it wilder, not to tame it.” It’s a grand chance to go along on an intensely personal journey into the mind and past of an accomplished writer.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on March 15, 2019

The Night Swimmers
by Peter Rock

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press
  • ISBN-10: 1641290005
  • ISBN-13: 9781641290005