The Night Swimmer is about a young American couple who move to Ireland and open a pub in a small coastal village outside of Cork. But Matt Bondurant’s suspenseful third novel is more Hitchcock than A Year in Provence. Like his second novel about bootlegging in Virginia, The Wettest County in the World (soon to be a major movie starring Guy Pearce, Shia LaBoeuf and Mia Wasikowska), The Night Swimmer tells a familiar, almost archetypal story of an outsider trying to adapt to an impenetrable and violent rural community.
Soon after 9/11, Elly Bulkington and her husband Fred move to the West Coast of Ireland where they have won a village pub, The Nightjar, in a contest. Both Bulkingtons leave trouble behind; Elly’s parents are obsessed with the destructive life of her older sister Beatrice and Fred is consumed by the guilt of surviving the devastation of the Twin Towers, when so many of his colleagues did not.
Running an Irish pub is less than idyllic for Americans Elly and Fred.
Elly, an open-water swimmer, looks forward to exploring the coastal waters, especially those off of the small neighboring island, Cape Clear. As Fred labors to fix up the pub, Elly moves to the island part time, baffling the locals with her interest in navigating the rough tides and lengthy night swims in the frigid waters. She becomes involved in the island community’s conflicts, especially those of an enigmatic organic goat farmer and the Corrigan family, who have controlled the island for centuries. Fred faces similar problems on the mainland, and soon the native resistance to these well-meaning outsiders puts their relationship, their pub and even Fred’s sanity in jeopardy.
The intensity of Fred and Elly’s experience is more than matched by Bondurant’s vivid descriptions of the Irish coast with its icy waters, rolling hills and merciless storms. Unfortunately, their problems can’t always compete with the grandeur of the setting and the richness of the Gaelic culture; the gradual unraveling of their marriage is almost lost in the Gothic details of the feud. But when Bondurant explores what it is like to push yourself to the brink, whether with physical activity, drugs and alcohol, or lust, he captures an intensity of experience the reader won’t soon forget.