by Leah Swann
The beautiful phrasing, evocative language and fresh style of Leah Swann’s writing had me reeling. I warn you—you’ll need tissues, and we all know they’re in short supply. This is a story about a mother’s love, and the depths she is forced to take physically and psychologically, to protect her two sons. I was spellbound by the visceral descriptions, the drawing on of raw emotion with such vivid clarity. I lived through Ava, Simon, Laurence, and Max, as chapters written from each character’s perspective disclose the story. It is a remarkable work of literature.
“She is afraid. She should be.”
Young mother Ava, leaves her home in Melbourne to escape her husband, Laurence. She travels with her young sons, Max and Teddy, to the coastal town of Sheerwater, where she had spent an idyllic holiday years before. While abuse is suggested, in fact, the narrative is more about Ava’s love and her primal need to protect her sons, than focusing on details of brutality or the more sinister.
“There in all that sweet fresh space, the endless fields of water, she’d end the marriage persisting in her soul, the marriage she carted like an invisible caravan or a long, unwanted tail. She’d sever it. She’d wash herself free. She’d teach Teddy and Max to surf, to dive, to spear fish. They’d grow strong in the water, just as she had, the gentle resistance that shapes you and forms you and sharpens your will.”
Sheerwater is a fictitious seaside town along the Great Ocean Road of Victoria. The scenes that flash back to suburban Melbourne, and the sight of the coast are particularly familiar to me. But even without knowing them, Swann’s perfect descriptions illuminate each location, from wreck of a burning plane to the sight of shear water birds and the sea. I envisaged Ava and the boys’ hapless journey as details of the calamitous events over a three-day period are revealed. The claustrophobic smothering of Ava while in shock, and the intensity of the emotional carnage she experiences, feels real. She will not allow anyone close to her—even those who try to help.
The characters are convincingly drawn and implicitly believable. The poignant voice of Ava’s nine-year-old son, Max, is the personification of the quote “out of the mouth of babes.” Max speaks with the maturity and wisdom of one far older than his years, and his chapters in particular, brought a lump to my throat—as did most of the narrative. It is haunting, magnificent—desperately spine tingling and achingly real.
I haven’t read anything recently, which has made me hold me breath as I read. I raced through the text, pain bursting from my chest as I clung to Ava, willing the police to listen to her—to take action, or to snap out of her inward focus and let someone in. The emotional drain and ache continued, as I joined in the chase for the missing boys as though my life depended on it.
The pain and suffering of a woman trying to keep her children safe, and the manner of the investigation and numerous incidents along the way, keep the tension pinging at a high level throughout. There is no stopping when you read something this great. Ava pushed through pain and I was urged to as well. I was there, longing, hoping and praying that Max and Teddy would be safe.
I promise this book will stay with you for a long time. Haunting and raw, it is a highly impressive debut.
Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.