This recommendation comes from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…
It’s very difficult to think of books to recommend to someone as well-read as Maxine was. But here goes… The book I’ve decided I would recommend to Maxine if I could is Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman has dreams that go far beyond her ‘wrong side of the tracks’ home in Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s a very promising student, passionate about learning, and her teacher Ilse Klein has high hopes for her. Then things begin to go wrong. Serena loses interest in school. She begins to skip class and when she is there, pays little attention to what’s going on. Klein begins to be concerned about Serena and alerts the school’s counselor.
It comes out that Serena has a very dysfunctional family situation, so she gets little support at home. What’s more, her family has little use for the authorities, and her mother deeply resents what she sees as interference from social service representatives.
Then, Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns what’s happened. She’s shocked to discover that nobody’s really taken an interest in the girl’s whereabouts. She’s been missing for three weeks, and no-one has really searched thoroughly for her. Resolving to do just the opposite, Lynnie starts looking for her sister.
In the meantime, we learn more about Ilse Klein and her mother Gerda. The Klein family, originally from Leipzig, fled what was once East Germany during the 1980’s, when the Cold War was in full force. They made their way to New Zealand and have built new lives for themselves.
Gerda remembers the Stasi, the East German secret police, and knows from tragic experience the power they had. She’s happy in New Zealand, and appreciates the second chance at life that she’s gotten. Ilse likes New Zealand too. But she was too young to understand what life under the Stasi was really like. And even after all these years, she misses the culture, the food, and her own language.
Although these two women have different perspectives on life, on Germany and on New Zealand, they both get involved in Serena Freeman’s life. And their decision has consequences that they couldn’t have imagined. They end up finding themselves drawn into much more than they thought.
I’d like to think Maxine would have enjoyed this novel. She particularly liked novels where larger issues are brought to the ‘human’ level and we see that in this story. For example, without preaching about social class and the role it plays in our lives, Richardson shows how class has affected the Freeman family and their local reputation. Richardson also shows, at a very human level, what it’s like to live under a government that spies on its own citizens and uses scare tactics and secret police to control people. And there’s the issue of immigration, which is also addressed at the human level.
And yet, these larger issues are also discussed at a larger level, and Richardson doesn’t offer pat, easy answers. I’d like to think Maxine would have appreciated that too. She preferred books that don’t offer easy, superficial answers to sometimes very complex and difficult issues.
What of the mystery itself – the story of Serena Freeman’s disappearance? Maxine appreciated stories where the mystery is believable – where people do credible things and, well, act like real people. And that’s the case in this novel. The truth about Serena’s disappearance makes sense and the characters react to it, to her and to the events in the book in ways you can imagine, given the story. The plot is taut and suspenseful, too, and I think Maxine would have liked that as well.
Maxine wasn’t much for a lot of gore, and didn’t care for gratuitous brutal violence. So I’d like to think she’d be pleased that this book isn’t ‘blood-soaked.’ There are scenes of violence, but they aren’t overdone and they aren’t extended. Oh, and I think she’d also like the fact that Richardson doesn’t use the ‘female-in-distress’ plot point as the focus of the novel. Maxine got quite impatient with that.
Maxine enjoyed novels with a solid sense of place and atmosphere, too, and we see that in this novel. Richardson depicts both settings – South Island and Leipzig – distinctly, including culture and lifestyle as well as physical setting.
So is there anything about this novel that Maxine might not have liked so well? It’s written in the present tense, and Maxine commented to me a few times about her preference for the past tense. But I think she’d have looked past that easily. She’d have appreciated the focus on the characters, the pace of the plot, the larger issues discussed and the fact that Richardson accomplishes all of this without resorting to brutal violence.
All in all, I think Maxine would really have enjoyed this book. I’m truly sorry she won’t have the chance to read it.