Night Swimming by Steph Bowe (2017)
Note: We don’t give star-ratings. We review in order to encourage the development of AusQueerYA, by deconstructing the good and the bad bits, to learn and grow as writers.
‘Imagine being the only two seventeen-year-olds in a small town. That’s life for Kirby Arrow and her best friend, Clancy Lee.
Clancy wants nothing more than to leave town and head for the big smoke, but Kirby is worried: her family has a history of leaving. She hasn’t heard from her father since he left when she was a baby. Shouldn’t she stay? And how could she leave her pet goat Stanley, her dog, Maude, and her cat, Marianne?
But everything changes when Iris arrives in town. Iris is beautiful, wears crazy clothes, plays the mandolin, and seems perfect. Clancy has his heart set on winning over Iris. Trouble is, Kirby is also falling in love with Iris…’
This was a cute read. It was short and sweet, like a nice summer read even though it’s autumn now. Kirby was a great narrator, with a strong voice and good sense of humour. There were times I laughed out loud, particularly at the scene where Kirby’s mum sprays her with face-mister, because that exact scenario plays out in my house almost on the daily.
The overall style of the book was nice. I think it works in Steph Bowe’s favour that she is so young, because her characters sound more realistic than a lot of YA characters.
The characters are diverse, both in ethnicity and sexuality, though they do fall into some stereotyping. I liked that Kirby was a carpentry apprentice and wore the same hoodie forever. Stanley the goat is also the best pet I’ve ever read.
Jess (Kirby’s mum) was my favourite person. She is a fresh take on the mum character and really strong and supportive. It was nice to see the array of weirdos that made up the town, but I think Bowe overstretched the mark a bit. I wanted to know more about these people than I got to.
And against all odds, there is a happy Queer ending.
To Be Improved:
There isn’t really a plot here. Sometimes that’s cool, like if the main theme is about the characters evolving, but in this case that was missing too. Kirby doesn’t actually evolve or grow as a person in any substantial way. Things happen to her and she reacts, but basically she just lets other people decide her plans for her. She spends the whole book certain she wants to stay with her family, but then Iris kisses her and she’s all about moving to Sydney. That might be a realistic move for most country kids, but I just didn’t buy that it was what Kirby really wanted.
The Iris-Kirby thing made me a little queasy too, like how Kirby is all about the comfy-casual life, but then Iris decides to put a dress on her and Kirby is suddenly discovering her true beauty? I really wished Kirby had rocked up to the engagement party in a suit and that Stanley had a little matching suit.
Iris herself is very much of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype. She’s ‘beautiful’ and quirky and although there is a very late attempt by Bowe to make her a deeper character by unveiling that she has depression (which is problematic in itself, because there is literally zero talk about it. We know more about Grandad’s dementia then we do about Iris’s depression), she is very two-dimensional. Why the crop circles? I would have liked to see Iris be more real. Nobody is that much of a whimsical long-haired mermaid when they are 17. When I was seventeen I wore a sideways cap, played Runescape and was addicted to Doritos, is all I’m saying.
In terms of Queer representation, it was really awesome that the girls had a happy ending. It was super brushed over though. Kirby knows she’s into girls, but hasn’t told her family and there appears to be literally no other gays in the village, until Iris shows up. Then they are out with their relationship easy breezy, kissing in the middle of Main Street. I can understand the intention here. It shouldn’t be a big deal. We shouldn’t be stared at and gossiped about. But I have lived in a small town very much like Alberton. People really do gossip about EVERYTHING, just like in the book. They are also super heteronormative. While I’m not calling for flat out homophobia to grace the pages of every AusQueerYA, for one set in a tiny country town, I think the whole relationship arc and coming out thing was unrealistic.
That scene where Kirby is telling Nathan she like Iris, and Nathan pretends like they didn’t meet literally one scene ago (editing problem).
Zero social media. They text each other, but I really thought Kirby and Clancy would have stalked Iris on Facebook/Instagram the second they saw her.
This line: ‘We have each other, even when we’re apart, and I’ve got Iris, this loveliest.’ Can we stop valuing ourselves based on our partner please? I wanted Kirby to understand she was worthy of a happy life independent of Iris, but this ending didn’t quite make it there.
This novel, as far as I can tell, is not an Own Voices story, and it shows. There is a valiant effort to make Iris and Kirby so different they are nearly opposite in everything but personality (another trope I’ve noticed in Queer YA’s, like we can’t tell the difference between the members of a same-sex couples if they both dress nicely), interesting and (fairly) comfortable with their sexuality, but it only went surface deep. It felt like the kind of book someone might write for a school project on diversity.
In saying all that, I enjoyed Steph Bowe’s writing style and hope she keeps on producing AusQueerYA’s (other titles she has published have not been Queer).