Usually when a marriage is in crisis, friends and family can help shoulder the burdens of loneliness and loss. For Elly Bulkington, only the ocean offers a panacea to her worries. An avid swimmer who is also blessed with a rare skin condition that allows her to spend hours in icy water, Elly has a punishing desire to be nothing more than a speck, “a mote of flesh traversing the vast expanse of the sea."
Much of Elly’s life with her husband, Fred, is about to change after they win the ownership of the Nightjar pub in the town of Baltimore on the southwestern corner of the Irish coast. This is a hard, windswept stretch of land, encompassed by wide rock-filled channel known as Roaring Water.
For Elly, these waters feel strange and foreboding; it's an undiscovered, undulating continent, mysterious and unsheltered that harbors strange secrets and hidden things.
Brilliant green and black, rising out of the sea like an unhinged edge of the
Earth, is Fastnet Lighthouse in a clump of rock that provides a violent background as lives are trimmed down and transformed. The spaces between that would normally drive Fred and Elly to distraction are now spoiled in every direction: “We should have considered what it was we were giving up when we moved to Ireland.”
Fred is impressed by the terrific vistas of rock and sea, but in the “shrill cry of heartbreak,” he takes to drink because the Nightjar seems to lack support from the local community.
As Fred's behavior becomes evermore reckless, a great heaviness settles on Elly.
She finds solace in the suspension of water, her desire to swim magnified until it is all she can think of.
Filling his pages with intricate descriptions of Fastnet, “its baleful eye casting metered slashes across the sea,” Bondurant
weighs Fred and Elly down by the isolated rock. The islanders are insular, isolated, and desperately suspicious folk; if you weren’t actually born on the island, you are considered “a blow-in.” Such is Fred's outlook as he grows more cynical and desperate. He’s neither ignored or shunned, but there’s this curt indifference, a willingness to pass by "without a nod or look."
From a blind goat farmer to an assortment of English birdwatchers, to an age-old family who have been purchasing large tracts of land, determined to transform the face of his ancestral homeland, “there are forces on the Islands that will not be contained, Not forever.” It’s not surprising, then, that only in the ocean can Elly forget her fracturing marriage as “layers peel away like pieces of a broken satellite.”
Although Bondurant’s stilted prose sometimes burdens the narrative, his tale of history and myth
is cannily seductive as it tells of how the shattered cup of futile beliefs is tied to a Castle of Gold and to Elly’s vision of a small child, her naked white form standing silent on the gray rock of Fastnet.
The real impact of the novel lies in the images where nature becomes a symbolic shield against Fred’s bitterness and Elly’s undercurrent of dissatisfaction.
It is Elly’s spirit, though, that ultimately drives The Night Swimmer, along with her need to open her heart and expand her life beyond the strictures of marriage and the world around her.