CW: This novel discusses sexual abuse/rape, so this review mentions the same topics
I love the premise of thrillers but I rarely actually rate a thriller novel highly or enjoy it while I’m reading. I find they can be quite trope-y, predictable and often badly written – I know this sounds like I’m generalising an entire genre but this is just based on my experience. I want to love them, but I often just can’t. However, I persist reading them because I get drawn in by the blurbs, with the hope that the one I’m reading will be different.
So now you can see why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Night Swim, which is a fast-paced, compelling and unsettling thriller. The novel follows Rachel, a true crime podcast host, as she travels to a small town in America to cover a rape trial that is dividing the town. While she’s there, she also gets pulled in to a cold case from 20 years before. Jenny Stills’ death was ruled an accidental drowning, but her sister is convinced that she was murdered.
One of the things that this novel does really well is it’s handling of the rape trial. Goldin handles such a sensitive topic in a respectful and honest way. In terms of the way the book is written, she doesn’t sensationalise and she doesn’t include unnecessary or graphic detail where fewer would do. In terms of the content, she includes a sensitive, considered commentary on the treatment of rape victims (both in the media and by a gruelling and violating trial) – set in the context of a small town where everyone has an opinion/takes a side. The result is often heart-breaking and uncomfortable to read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a thriller that so sensitively discusses the topics it covers. A difficultly with enjoying true crime/thrillers/murder mysteries etc. is the way that the genre exploits violence against women (think: unnecessarily graphic shots of violence against women in TV shows) – one of the results of centring the discussions from the point of view of the female gaze instead of the male gaze is a book like this, I think. It was very refreshing.
I thought the narrative balanced the two plots well – and I don’t feel like either of them suffered as a result of the other. The story is told through multiple formats – the main is Rachel’s third-person narrative, and this is interspersed with letters from Jenny’s sister and podcast transcripts from Rachel’s podcast. I thought this mix was well-handled, and Goldin chose good moments to take you out the main narrative and switch it up, leaving you wanting more from each thread of the story. The chapters were short and succinct, which worked really well for me and meant I felt like I flew through the novel.
The one thing I would say about this novel though is that it’s not your typical thriller novel – it’s definitely more considered and character-driven rather than focused on plot. The rape trial isn’t a mystery and Rachel doesn’t play a very active role in the case. That just might be one to bear in mind if that’s not your cup of tea/you prefer your thrillers to be action-packed.
The Night Swim was compelling, well-written and unsettling. I really enjoyed reading this book, and found it a refreshing and interesting read. It seemed to me at the end that they were leaving it open for a sequel, and I would definitely be up for that if they were! In the mean time, I’ve heard good things about her other novel, The Escape Room, and will definitely be picking that up when I can!
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