Book Review: “Sheerwater” by Leah Swann (@HarperCollinsAU @EasternRegional)

Sheerwater (Fourth Estate, imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2020) by Leah Swann

Sheerwater is the debut novel of Leah Swann, award-winning author, journalist, and chief speech writer for the CEO of World Vision Australia. While Swann is known for her critically acclaimed collection of short stories and a fantasy series for middle-grade readers, this full-length novel demonstrates her exquisite skills in weaving a gripping tale.

Sheerwater is not a book for impatient readers. Quite the opposite – although the story unfolds over just three days, it delves into the deepest corners of the minds of its characters and exposes them scratched raw and bleeding. Hence we have a slow but delicate read, full of details that sometimes remind this reviewer of Stephen King’s Rose Madder (1995).

The book has a seemingly cliched start – a woman and her two sons embarking on a road trip in an attempt to escape the violent, coercive control of her husband. Sadly it is a common theme these days, one that has been employed in too many literary genres. But Swann still manages to blow your mind in Sheerwater by creating the most unbelievable plot twist.

Set along Victoria’s southern coast, the story begins with Ava driving and dreaming of a quiet new life with her kids when a light plane crashes by the roadside. A trained rescuer, Ava has to stop and help, but it is in that process that her children somehow disappeared from the car. Have they gone wandering about? Did someone take them?

It is gut-wrenching to read Ava’s emotional and psychological trauma as her past is slowly revealed. While we never get to know her full story, it is her being tormented by her loss that tugs at our hearts. Swann is clever not to linger on what makes Ava the way she is, as the story sufficiently explains why an experienced emergency worker can be driven to near madness by her sense of grief, guilt and self-doubt.

The same deliberate omission of background information applies to the other characters, most notably Lawrence, Ava’s husband who is determined to make her suffer. Instead of telling us why Lawrence is dangerous, the story shows how manipulative and fearsome he can be. Swann’s ability to strike straight at our emotional core is amazing, prompting us to almost forget and forgive the lack of answers about Simon as an important third character.

As the story slowly builds to a crescendo in the end, we are pushed to the edge of our seats. Again it is our emotional response that Swann seeks and seizes, and the quickening pace and the accumulation of tension and suspense is nearly unbearable.

In short, Sheerwater is an emotional read for dedicated readers, whose patience will be richly rewarded as they reach the last page. Swann’s language is beautiful and captivating, and her capacity to use small details to shape both characters and circumstances is impressive. In this sense, we note the use of shearwater, the migratory seabird, as a symbol of the love, strength and sacrifice of a mother.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Novel takes readers on a slow build to a crescendo” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, July 13, 2021, P.10.

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