The biggest issue of this kind is what kind of book it is. I’m not normally one to get hung up on labels (in fact I’ve been known to lament their restrictiveness) but someone – I’m not sure if it’s the publishers or author or someone else in the chain – has gone to some lengths to market this book as literary. The word appears in publicity material – both with and without the word thriller attached – and there are even a series of book club questions in the edition I read (which, I’m afraid, I always find insufferably patronising). Not only does this over-emphasis give the impression that someone thinks literary fiction is intrinsically better than the popular kind (another sentiment guaranteed to get my hackles rising), but it draws attention to the fact that the book doesn’t fit any definition of literary fiction I can think of. It’s at least as much plot driven as it is focused on exploring any particular theme, it does not demonstrate much in the way of social commentary (insightful or otherwise) nor are its characters terribly well developed. It’s protagonist – an Australian archaeological professor called Rebecca Wilding – is not noticeably more complex than the average human and the rest of the characters are entirely one-dimensional. Some of the descriptive passages provide good imagery but I suspect that owes more to the author’s screen-writing credentials than any literary sensibility the book has in its own right.
But the book isn’t what I’d call a thriller either. There is a lot of stuff happening all the way along but most of it isn’t very suspenseful and much of it is simply odd. For example there’s a whole passage involving an altercation between Rebecca, her dog and a kangaroo that I’m sure was meant to be metaphorical (confirmed by the inclusion of this passage in one of the book club questions) but just felt way too contrived to me. The book’s major dramatic event doesn’t happen until about two thirds of the way through, which wouldn’t have mattered except that the publicity made such a big deal of it that I was waiting for it from the outset. Impatiently. Until that point there is just a lot of white noise. The university where Rebecca and her husband both work is going through hard financial times and both their faculties are having to radically cut costs and sack people. Then Rebecca is accused of financial fraud. At the same time she begins (for no reason that I can actually pinpoint) to suspect her husband of having an affair. After the big event the book is more squarely thriller-like, though there are a lot of implausible coincidences crammed into the last third of the book in order to bring about a resolution.
Another aspect of the book I struggled with is Rebecca herself. On the one hand she is head of a university department an expert on a particular archaeological period and has a good reputation amongst her colleagues. In short she is fairly ‘together’ and competent. She rather suddenly develops a kind of paranoia – about her husband’s potential affair and the activities of her boss – but there’s no consistency to her thinking or behaviour. I’m not troubled by whether or not her fears have validity – that’s a legitimate question for the narrative to answer – but Rebecca just doesn’t seem to me to be a recognisable person from the beginning of the book to the end. In one chapter she behaves one way. In the next another that doesn’t gel with what went before. One moment she’s wondering which of the women in his life Stephen is having an affair with and being surprised to learn he has started investing in the stock market after they’d agreed he never would. The next she is asking her friends to ‘give her some credit for knowing her husband’. I suppose this could all be put down to Rebecca’s status as a first-person narrator – often unreliable beasts – but to me it just tell as if each version of her had been written by someone different.
THE LOST SWIMMER was the most reviewed crime novel for last year’s Australian Women Writers challenge so I was keen to read it but found myself disappointed. I concede that’s partly to do with the expectations that the publicity and popularity inevitably set but that’s not the whole story. I think the book tried too hard to be something it isn’t and in so doing failed to be what it ought to have been. In reaching for but not achieving literary status it neglected the foundations of a good suspense novel; taking too long to build up its drama and being too obvious in its plotting (I lost count of how many times I muttered ‘show don’t tell’ under my breath as I was reading). It did keep me reading to the end but, if I’m to be totally honest, more so I could sit back in smug satisfaction at having predicted the main plot points than because I was genuinely interested in what happened to Rebecca or her husband.
As is always the case other opinions are available and many of them are more positive about this book than I feel, including my fellow Fair Dinkum co host who reviewed the book in April last year
This is the second book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster 
Length: 341 pages
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