Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Paddy Richardson

SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Paddy Richardson (Upstart Press, 2014)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

A mesmerising tale of three women who must overcome the past and beat the odds to find hope for the future. German immigrant, Ilse Klein, lives sedately in Central Otago with her mother, but their peaceful summer is fractured when Ilse, during her nightly swim in the river, discovers one of her young students on the riverbank about to give birth. She must decide whether to shelter the girl and endanger herself and her mother, or to tread the route of safety in the face of corruption and brutality she had thought left far behind in the years of her childhood. A fast-paced and beautifully told story of three women and the real meaning of courage.

Every now and again you come across an author who writes fabulous books, and yet, sadly seems to stay too far below the radar. New Zealander Paddy Richardson is one of the best thriller writers around these days, one who undoubtedly deserves a much bigger readership than she seems to have garnered.

SWIMMING IN THE DARK is a classic from this author. Reminiscent of some of the best of the Scandinavian psychological thriller writers, this book is a perfect illustration of the power of this author's storytelling and the cleverness of the writing.

Starting out in a low-key, almost peaceful manner, reflective somehow of the place, and the time of the year, SWIMMING IN THE DARK introduces the reader to German immigrant, and teacher Ilse Klein and her mother Gerda. They live quietly together, in the house they moved to when, with father and husband, they left Germany and came to quiet, safe, peaceful New Zealand. Still very German in many of their habits, and the things that they surround themselves with, these women are self-contained and unsurprisingly risk averse. Ilse's job as a teacher seems to be the only outwardly focussed part of their lives.

On the other hand, young Serena's life doesn't reflect the sense of place. The daughter of a dissolute mother, her family was long ago tagged as a "problem". Anything Serena or her siblings do is viewed through the prism of dysfunction, alcohol and a mother with little control. That Serena is targeted, abused and raped by an older authority figure sadly doesn't come as any surprise, nor does the way that she keeps the outcome quiet. The lack of sympathy and understanding for his young girl, and the sister who has left town but stayed in touch, is starkly drawn by Richardson. The bright light of compassion and acceptance comes, not surprisingly, from the somewhat self-imposed outsiders, as Ilse and Gerda deal with the consequences of their kindness.

The reason for the comparison with Scandinavian psychological thrillers will be instantly clear to fans. This is not a crime up front, investigation, resolution style of book. Rather SWIMMING IN THE DARK takes the reader deep inside motivation, power, and the nature of risk. It looks at love, acceptance and tolerance from a number of different perspectives as well as fear, bravery, cruelty and kindness. Setting it in small town New Zealand, in the summer where the river is important, where the outdoors are a part of life, still manages to give a closed room type of feel to the book to start off with, and a place to fear and long for equally.

There are a lot of strengths to this book; the plot draws the reader in despite (with hindsight) the actual "action" you expect with crime fiction appearing late in the piece. The analysis of the motivations of the characters is fascinating as is the way that not only are these two central German women confined, contained and separate from the community, they are from the reader as well. It's the nature of risk, and what that can do to some people that opens up these women - the three main characters and the older sister who returns, the childhood friend from Germany who comes into their lives, the baby that they all want to protect / hold safe. Some readers may be called upon to forgive a side trip into Gerda's background which is strong on detail of the threat felt in Germany and the desire to get out, whilst others may find this contributes much to the understanding of Gerda and Ilse's bravery.

Emotional without being emotive, contained and withdrawn without being cold or off-putting, SWIMMING IN THE DARK is a really clever novel from an author whose books have rapidly advanced into "queue outside the bookshop on release day" territory.


Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, Reviewing the Evidence, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction. This review was originally written for Reviewing the Evidence


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