Written by Ann Turner — Since its release in Australia earlier this month, Ann Turner’s debut The Lost Swimmer has topped the bestseller list of several bookstores, and has received many favourable reviews. It’s not hard to see why – The Lost Swimmer is compelling, original and at times deeply unsettling.
Rebecca Wilding is an archaeology professor working at a small university on Victoria’s surf coast. Her two children have both moved to Melbourne to study, so Rebecca lives alone with her husband Stephen, a professor of economics, and their dog Big Boy. Times are getting tough at Coastal University, with cuts looming over the staff and putting them on edge. The Dean of Arts, Priscilla Chiton, is making sure Rebecca knows that she dislikes her and wants her fired, and Rebecca is growing increasingly certain that her husband is cheating on her. When a routine investigation uncovers hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of suspicious activity in an account link to Greece, one signed off by Rebecca, things start to fall apart, and she becomes more and more certain that someone is out to get her. Suspected by her colleagues and feeling that her husband is lying to her, Rebecca has no one to turn to.
Eager to escape the investigation at home, and hoping to unearth some clues about the accounts in Athens, Rebecca and Stephen travel to Greece, Italy and France. Their visit to Greece unearths more questions than answers. They travel on to Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Rebecca must confront two of her greatest fears: water, and the roads winding around the coast to Positano.
The treacherous roads leave a dent in their rental car, and she still can’t shake the feeling that Stephen is lying to her, but the magic of the Mediterranean soon wins her over. The police are friendly and helpful, until Stephen goes swimming and never returns, leaving Rebecca with a new set of allegations against her. She must find out the truth about what happened, and uncover the secrets and conspiracies that have followed her halfway across the world. Soon she’s on the run from the law, desperately trying to clear her name and win her husband, and her job, back.
The narrative of The Lost Swimmer builds slowly, alternating between tense impasse and frantic action. The feeling of tension is, however, too often stated rather than implied, and although the office dispute that dominates the first half of the book provides an important context and backstory for the main plot, it feels overdone and heavy-handed. Every office has disputes, and universities everywhere are facing cuts.
It is worth persevering through, especially as the tension building is interspersed with moments of genuine action and truly intriguing backstory. The early scene when Big Boy is attacked by a kangaroo when he tries to steal her joey is one, as are the scenes of family tension between Rebecca, her husband and her two children, which are described with much more subtlety and much more careful detail than those featuring other characters.
The descriptions of the Italian and Australian coastlines are what really stands out in The Lost Swimmer, but the tense plotting is what will stick with me most. I was reading on the train and didn’t realise my stop had arrived, and had to frantically run for the doors. The Lost Swimmer is that kind of novel – one that draws you in, and makes you forget where you are.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
The Lost Swimmer isn’t available on Amazon in the US or the UK at the moment, but can be ordered from Bookworld in Australia.