The Lost Swimmer
Simon & Schuster AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Rebecca Wilding is an archaeologist professor working at a university on the south east coast of Australia. She’s Head of her School in the Faculty of Arts and the position is not without its problems, including a very hostile Dean of Arts. The Dean has been going behind Rebecca’s back to offer redundancy packages to Rebecca’s valued staff and slowly isolating her from all of her supporters. And soon she’s pulled into open-ended mediation with the Dean. Rebecca’s situation goes from grim to much, much worse when she’s accused of a major fraud.
As well as that, Rebecca has to face the fact that she believes – no, she knows that her husband Stephen is having an affair. As the investigation for the fraud gets underway, Rebecca and Stephen fly to Europe for a planned holiday. It’s fortuitous as it gives Rebecca the opportunity to begin digging around into who might be attempting to frame her in terms of the fraud but she frustratingly finds herself blocked at every turn.
And then on the Amalfi Coast, Stephen disappears. And the police suspect that Rebecca has murdered him.
I’m actually rather torn on this book. On one hand, it’s got all the things that should’ve been an instant winner for me. The setting – first the southern coast of Victoria, later Greece and Italy – as well as the exploration of the fraud and Rebecca and Stephen’s marriage and the intricacies within. Not to mention that Rebecca’s career is pretty fascinating and there’s a lot of little tidbits about archaeology and the politics of the faculty at university. However, there were some pretty big issues for me, regarding the story itself.
Firstly – it feels rather slow. It’s not a very long book and Stephen doesn’t vanish until the second half of it. It seems to take an extraordinary amount of time to get to that section of the story and some of the first half of the book feels a bit unnecessary. I’m not sure that Rebecca and Stephen have enough real interactions, I know they have been married for a long time, but I’d have liked more on Rebecca’s thoughts about Stephen having an affair. More about why she thought that, more about how she felt about it.
Rebecca is a very passive character, in all aspects of her life it seems. She knows that the Dean of Arts is difficult – she’s already in mediation with all of the other Heads of Schools apart from Rebecca. She knows that her position is going to be hard to hold onto, that she’s going to have to fight and be assertive and have all her ducks lined up in a row, all her facts to hand. The fraud coming out is unfortunate, because it gives the Dean obvious ammunition but even before that the Dean was already significantly hostile towards her and I wanted a bit more about that too. Rebecca does an awful lot of nothing, but I think part of this was because the way in which the character of the Dean, Pamela was written, it gave Rebecca quite little course of action in retaliation. Which brings me to my next issue, that of Pamela herself.
She’s everything I loathe in a female character that’s supposed to be an antagonist and everything that feels well, a bit two dimensional. That female career woman who wraps the male heads of authority around her finger, is hostile towards other women that she works with, who exists merely to be as difficult as she possibly can to the main character. A lot of the time there felt no real reasoning for Pamela’s actions until very late in the novel (and that’s only my guess at the reasoning for some of her actions) and it felt really like the easy way out. There was no depth or complexity to Pamela’s character and considering she takes up a rather large part of the story, I felt as though there really should’ve been much more to her. Even the scene between her and Rebecca almost at the end of the novel lacked the punch it needed.
I did enjoy the fraud part of the plot – I found it quite interesting in terms of how accounts for universities work and how trips and funding is organised, etc although I did find it surprising (and possibly implausible?) that Rebecca was allowed to leave the country whilst the investigation was going on. Rebecca probably made a rather good scapegoat merely because she’s both trusting and passive although to be honest I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone to be watchful of people attempting to frame you for fraud. I did admire her for attempting to investigate herself although I could also see that from the point of view of those investigating, it could also be misconstrued as attempting to hide and/or destroy any evidence. The mystery (well two mysteries really) with Stephen was also interesting as well but it also left me wanting a bit more.
The writing is lovely, descriptive and lyrical and I loved the scenery of Greece and Italy, particularly the lovingly described drive down the Amalfi coast. But although the novel felt a bit like it was supposed to be a bit of a thriller, that it was building up in the same sort of way, it never really paid off and the ending kind of fizzled out into something that didn’t feel all that satisfying or thrilling.
Book #100 of 2015
The Lost Swimmer is book #40 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015