Swimming in the Dark

Paddy Richardson

In a small New Zealand town, four women find their lives inextricably linked by a secret that could bring about their undoing... or set them free.

Serena Freeman, a once-promising high school student, has started to retreat from life and one night does not return home. Her sister, Lynnie Freeman, is carving out a successful career and is desperate to distance herself from her troubled past. But on hearing of Serena's disappearance, Lynnie is forced to return to the town of Alexandra to look for her.

The only link to Serena's disappearance is Ilse Klein, a quietly dedicated English teacher who longs for her lost childhood in Germany and the sense of belonging it gave her. She lives with her mother, Gerda Klein, who is beset by a devastating depression each winter and plagued by memories of Stasi Germany. The Kleins learned long ago that there is safety in silence, can they break a lifelong habit?

This really is among the best books I have read this year. I think it is one of those rare ones, where the literary merges with crime fiction. For much of the book you wonder what "the crime" is going to be, although in reality there are many.

The Freeman family is one of those small country town families blighted from the beginning by poverty and social circumstances. Lynnie, the eldest of five, escapes early and heads for the city, eventually making a better life for herself. Serena is the youngest, brighter, but still not protected by her mother, the school, and the authorities in the way they should. And then her mother contacts Lynnie to tell her that Serena has been missing for three weeks. Lynnie comes home.

Serena's favourite teacher is Miss Klein. She and her mother are immigrants from East Germany. Richardson does a wonderful job of describing their background and, for me, sheds light on what life in Leipzig under the Stasi was like.

The plots merge in the present in the small New Zealand town of Alexandra, but the story moves the reader effortlessly through time and location.

A fabulous read.

 

Review by Kerrie Smith, MYSTERIES IN PARADISE

About Paddy Richardson:

Paddy Richardson has written two collections of short stories, Choices and If I Were Lebanese, many of which have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand National. Her work has also been highly commended in the Katherine Mansfield and Sunday Star-Times awards. Her first novel, The Company of a Daughter, was written during her year as the Burns Fellow at Otago University, Dunedin, 1997. Penguin has published her second, third and fourth novels: A Year to Learn a Woman in 2008; Hunting Blind in 2010; Traces of Red in 2011.

Paddy Richardson lives in Dunedin, where she writes and teaches courses in creative writing.