Friday, October 3, 2014

Swimming in the dark by Paddy Richardson

Serena Freeman is a hard working student who has a bright future ahead of her - as long as she can shake off the taint of being one of "those" Freeman's.  Ilse Klein is the quiet and unassuming teacher at the local high school, the teacher everyone calls Miss and who Serena connects with in a way she has never connected with a teacher before.  Ilse carries the burden of being German in a small town, a woman who lives alone with her mother and has other "quirks" which make her stand in isolation in an otherwise tight knit community.  Her mother Gerda Klein carries the weight of a life lived under the strict and heavy handed control of the Stasi in Leipzig - who carries the burden of a loss no woman should have to bear.

There are three distinctly different women, lives lived together and separately, three different strands braided together by the actions of a man who holds more power than he should.  Serena should have been able to feel safe with him, he was supposed to protect her and the other young people in town, he should never have used his power and position against her.  He caused her pain and fear, and drove her to run from her family and her home.  Ilse has always drawn a line between the world of school and her home life, she has never opened her home to student before but she can not abandon Serena when she so desperately needs help.  Seeing Serena reminds Gerda of her past and she can not abandon her either, no matter what the risk.  Serena has been failed by her family and those who were charged with protecting her, but by protecting her Ilse and Gerda are exposing themselves to terrible risk.

It may sound terrible, but as a general rule I do not read books by New Zealand authors - books for children and teens are usually the exception and even then I pass a lot of them over.  I am not entirely sure why this is, but I do know it is also a relatively common phenomenon, which is a real shame for budding New Zealand authors.  Swimming in the dark started with huge promise, but it was almost relegated to the discard pile when it slipped from Serena's story to the point of view of the other characters, mainly because of the convoluted and confused way the story is told. 

One of the challenges for me was the way the sentences were structured and the generous sprinkling of German words and phrases - and quite frankly the clumsy way in which the story was edited and connected together.  It just seems as though the author and editor were so concerned with being clever about blending the story into a cohesive whole that they missed the best way to make it work - or worse that they were so focused on avoiding clich├ęs of style that they mangled the finished work.  It was distracting to have Serena's story up to the present tense, then Ilse's story to the present tense, then some more of the general present tense, then some of Gerda's story to the present tense, and then more of the present tense.  Other stories with similar ideas have done background building interspersed with chapters of the other characters, and quite frankly that would have been a better option here.

Overall the concept of this story is fabulous and kept me reading from cover to cover, however the execution meant that I ended up speed reading a large portion of the second part of the book because it began to feel "preachy" and contrived.  So much of this story is twisted and convoluted in a way that totally distracts from the story of Serena - the story I really wanted to hear and connect with.  The stories of Ilse and Gerda are interesting, but they should not have been given equal weight to Serena's story, I totally get that their personal stories influenced their actions and decisions but I didn't need to have that fact driven into my head with a blunt instrument.  I am glad that I have read Swimming in the dark, and it would make a great mini series, but this does not come with a high recommendation unless you are someone who likes really convoluted and twisted stories.

If you like this book then try:

Reviewed by Brilla

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