Book Review: The Night Swim by Megan Goldin
In The Night Swim, a new thriller from Megan Goldin, a true crime podcast host covering a controversial trial finds herself drawn deep into a small town’s dark past and a brutal crime that took place there years before.
Rachel Krall has taken her hit true crime podcast on the road to semi-anonymously cover a controversial rape trial taking place in the small town of Neapolis, North Carolina. Semi-anonymously, for while fans are familiar with her voice, she and her producer Pete have taken great pains to hide what she really looks like to make it easier for her to do her job without having to worry about starstruck witnesses or, worse, stalkers.
So when Rachel finds a letter placed under her windshield wiper after a pit stop on the road to Neapolis, she’s immediately on high alert. While her listeners know where she’s headed, they shouldn’t know what she looks like or what car she drives. Her fears aren’t exactly assuaged by the contents of the letter. A woman named Hannah is begging her to look into a cold case involving the death of a young woman in Neapolis over two decades ago. Hannah claims that she’s been trying to contact Rachel for months and has resorted to leaving this letter out of sheer desperation.
Rachel is reluctant to encourage Hannah’s inappropriate advances, especially when the letters keep coming as Rachel tries to get settled in Neapolis in advance of the trial, showing up at her hotel or in restaurants where she’s dining. She wants to focus on the trial of the town golden boy and hopeful future Olympic swimmer, Scott Blair, who has been accused of raping a 16-year-old girl as part of a sick sexual competition. But something in Hannah’s desperation speaks both to her curiosity and to her sense of justice, and so Rachel begins to look into the death of Jenny Stills, who allegedly drowned while on a night swim.
Rachel’s investigations are interspersed with transcripts of her (excellently written) podcast episodes, as well as with Hannah’s viewpoint chapters. Even before Jenny died, Hannah was rather a feral creature and her involvement in the events that led to her sister’s death only damaged her further. To this day, she carries the guilt of not having done more for Jenny:
I hated myself for my stubborn silence as [the detective] drove away. Sometimes when the guilt overwhelms me, I remind myself that it was not my fault. He didn’t ask the right questions and I didn’t know how to explain things that I was too young to understand.
This year we mark a milestone. Twenty-five years since Jenny died. A quarter of a century and nothing has changed. Her death is as raw as it was the day we buried her. The only difference is that I won’t be silent any more.
The Night Swim is a sensitive examination of women’s silence in the face of trauma and sexual violence. By juxtaposing the modern rape trial with Jenny and Hannah’s story, it shows that while times have certainly progressed, certain things stay exactly the same, for better or worse. It’s hard not to grieve with Hannah as she seeks justice for her sister, or to feel the pain rape victims suffer, first from being attacked, but secondly and too often from not being believed.
Megan Goldin also looks at the harm the adversarial system of justice has on victims, even as she acknowledges that an imperfect system is better than no system at all. The fault is less to do with the courts than with a society that has far less sympathy for a woman’s autonomy than for a man’s potential. Rachel’s podcast musings on the subject are as well thought out as they are lyrical, as she sees for herself how Scott’s alleged victim unravels on the stand:
One of the questions I keep asking myself is whether it’s worth it. When a person goes through a terrible trauma, her mind is conditioned to forget what happened. Memory loss from trauma is a protective mechanism. It helps us stay sane.
In this case, a sixteen year-old girl is being asked to recount, in front of a large group of strangers, in public, every single traumatic, horrific moment of that night on the beach so that maybe, just maybe, her alleged rapist will be punished for what he did to her.
Is she doing that for herself, or for the public good? Will it give her closure if he goes to prison? Will it vindicate her? Or will it destroy her?
I really enjoyed how Ms. Goldin dealt with rape and rape culture through the intertwined narratives, though I did feel some concern that even the most well-meaning efforts to condemn those who abuse the bodies and souls of women cannot avoid somehow still centering a man’s pain and vindication. It is, perhaps, an undercurrent that most readers may not even notice in the face of the rest of this otherwise strongly feminist tale. If The Night Swim can encourage the kind of thinking that refuses to sacrifice or punish women because of what men do, then it will be an important entry in the public discourse. At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction.