“In real life, there’s no such thing as happily ever after, there’s just life passing day by day. After you ride off into the sunset, then you’re just in the middle of nowhere on a horse at night, aren’t’ you?”
Night Swimming is the third YA novel by Australian author, Steph Bowe. Everybody leaves Alberton. Seventeen-year-old Kirby Arrow can understand why kids leave: they have to go further afield for Years 11 and 12, and never seem to come back; her Grandma left (but returns intermittently); her dad left when she was still in nappies; her best friend Clancy Lee is still here, but only because he’s doing Year 12 by correspondence and helping his parents out in the Purple Emperor. And he’s dying to leave too, to pursue a career in musical theatre.
Kirby is still here because she doesn’t want to leave her mum, Jess to run the family goats milk soap business with just cousin Nathan’s help. And there’s Grandpa (Cyril to most everyone), not getting any younger, who’s maybe heading into dementia. And her pet goat, Stanley. So, without her mother’s blessing, she’s “subverting gender norms” and apprenticed herself to Mr Pool in his furniture-making enterprise.
Alberton’s a small, inland town surrounded by farms: pub, Chinese restaurant, hairdresser, newsagency, IGA, vet, bakery. Everybody knows everybody (and all their business), so when an Indian restaurant, the Saffron Gate opens opposite the Purple Emperor, the whole town is talking. Clancy Lee is talking about “the Restauranteur’s Daughter”. When Kirby meets Iris, she’s immediately smitten. Ditto, Clancy, who endeavours to impress by inviting Iris to participate in the pub musical they are (suddenly) staging.
Meeting Iris isn’t the only thing affecting Kirby’s equilibrium: Jess is talking about putting Cyril into care (no way!!); Kirby spots an article about her dad in the newspaper (after 17 years she finally knows where he is!!); someone is making crop circles on surrounding farms (aliens? Everyone suspects Clancy Lee); Jess is apparently having a relationship with the IGA manager (how come Kirby’s the last to know?); cousin Nathan’s pregnant fiancée, Claire is sounding her out about being a bridesmaid (cool!); and a certain distraction causes her to cut off the top of her finger with the circular saw (ouch!).
Bowe’s sweet coming of age tale is filled with characters that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a small town, where quirkiness is, to some extent, de riguer; their individuality may be what endears them to the reader. Clancy Lee is a little reminiscent of Charlie Bucktin’s friend, Jeffrey Lu, in Jasper Jones. Bowe easily conveys the attitudes to be found in small towns, as well as problems faced by isolated teens.
The pace is gentle: there’s a bit of drama and quite a lot of humour. And there’s a cat called Marianne!! This is a story that looks at the importance of love and loyalty and friendship, of ambition and acceptance, and of being demonstrative with those you care about. Excellent YA fiction that is certain to have wider appeal, from a talented young author.