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1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Night Swimming by Steph Bowe

Night Swimming
Steph Bowe
Text Publishing
2017, 311p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Imagine being the only two seventeen-year-olds in a small town. That’s life for Kirby Arrow—named after the most dissenting judge in Australia’s history—and her best friend Clancy Lee, would-be musical star.

Clancy wants nothing more than to leave town and head for the big smoke, but Kirby is worried: her family has a history of leaving. She hasn’t heard from her father since he left when she was a baby. Shouldn’t she stay to help her mother with the goat’s-milk soap-making business, look after her grandfather who suffers from dementia, be an apprentice carpenter to old Mr Pool? And how could she leave her pet goat, Stanley, her dog Maude, and her cat Marianne?

But two things happen that change everything for Kirby. She finds an article in the newspaper about her father, and Iris arrives in town. Iris is beautiful, wears crazy clothes, plays the mandolin, and seems perfect, really, thinks Kirby. Clancy has his heart set on winning over Iris. Trouble is Kirby is also falling in love with Iris…

This was really cute.

It’s set in a rural town – in fact the town is so rural that main character Kirby is one of just two 17yos that live there. She and her friend Clancy opted not to go to school in a bigger town nearby. Clancy is doing year 12 by distance education but Kirby is working as an apprentice with a local cabinetmaker/carpenter. She’s quite content and hasn’t got any interesting in leaving the small town, much to her mother’s disappointment. The family has dealt with multiple people leaving – Kirby’s grandmother left, her father left, her uncle left. Now there’s just Kirby, her mother and her grandfather living in the family home. Her mother keeps goats and makes goat milk soaps and toiletries as an income. Kirby’s grandfather is slowly succumbing to the grip of demential and requires some care on a day to day basis, something that Kirby is happy to undertake. She’d much rather have him at home and can’t stomach the idea of him potentially going into care. Her quiet existence is shaken up with the arrival of Iris to the small town.

There was one point in this book, when Clancy (who is an incredibly outgoing, exuberant personality) decides to put on a play where I thought the book was going to lose its charm and for me, head into over the top, more cringeworthy humour but Steph Bowe pulled it back and pulled it off and the play actually became also quite a charming feature. The friendship between Clancy and Kirby is longstanding, they’ve been friends since they were small and the arrival of Iris definitely complicates the dynamic because as everyone knows, three can be a crowd. As she’s the only female other than Kirby in town, Clancy decides immediately that Iris is his soulmate and that they’ll be perfect. For Kirby, Iris is also make her feel all of the feelings as well. The LGBT+ representation here is really good and there’s diversity as well. Clancy’s family are the only Chinese family in the small town and Iris is half Indian, half Kiwi. Her parents have opened an Indian restaurant in direct competition with Clancy’s family’s Chinese restaurant which makes up a quite a bit of the humour.

I really enjoyed a lot of the personal relationships in this book, particularly the way Kirby feels about her grandfather. Sometimes she has have some difficulty grasping his medical situation, I think she doesn’t want to believe that he’s growing more vulnerable so it’s almost like she chooses not to believe it. She’s very passionate about him being able to stay at home, rather than go to a soulless nursing home. Kirby’s mother desires that Kirby get out of town, live, see the world, explore beyond the borders of their tiny town. Kirby’s mother is at times, distant and brusque, often concerned with her BAS statements and she seems pretty hands-off in terms of parenting. They don’t talk a lot and anything Kirby approaches her with she is often mostly rebuffed with “you do what you want”, which frustrates Kirby at times, I think she wants to feel like her mother cares what she does and often gets the impression she doesn’t. Kirby wanted to join the family business and feels overlooked and rejected. I also loved the way that Kirby interacted with her boss as well, and the way he always seems surprised when she keeps turning up to work. Her friendship with Clancy is entertaining and I think the discord that they face here is probably the first they’ve ever had to negotiate.

This reads as deceptively light but there’s a lot of careful exploration of some quite difficult topics – abandonment, depression, dementia, life decisions and what the future holds as well as a weather event that threatens everything that all too many Australians (and to be honest, those elsewhere too, it’s not something unique to us by any means) would be all too familiar with. Kirby is an interesting, engaging main character just figuring things out and trying to get what she wants out of life and I found this incredibly enjoyable and well written. I feel that this is my favourite of Steph Bowe’s books. What a loss she is to the Aussie YA world.

Book #34 of 2020

Night Swimming is book #14 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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