Halfway through chapter one of Yannick Murphy’s compelling new novel, I worried the repetitive sentences — “This is the water’’; “This is the facility’’; “This is the mom . . .” ; “This is the outside’’; “This is the killer’’ — would send me into a torpor. Once I got used to Murphy’s literary Tourette’s, however, I was hooked; style and substance and swimming mesh perfectly into a page-turner that sweeps you along with the power of a winning breaststroke. Fair warning: For some readers the language will be a stumbling block. Others will take to it as, well, the proverbial duck to water.
The story revolves around a group of parents and their swim-team adolescents. A serial killer has murdered one of the swimmers at a rest stop, the same location where another brutal murder occurred decades ago. The parents are terrified and mystified. Unlike them, though, we readers know the murderer’s identity — a device that heightens the tension and makes us anxious participants. Look out, we want to warn Annie, Chris, Dinah, Paul, and their children. Will he be discovered in time to prevent another death?
Short chapters and the use of the second person for the protagonist is an effective way for Murphy to pull any number of strings and introduce her deftly drawn cast: Annie — the you — is a wedding photographer while her husband, Thomas, not only hasn’t touched her in an age but also talks to her in factoids from his piles of scientific journals. Chris, a beauty, is married to Paul, a writing teacher, with a secret connection to one of the murders. Annie is attracted to Paul, with whom she shares a bench at swim events and adjacent hotel rooms at away competitions. Dinah is the hilarious, helicopter-mother-from-hell. Mandy, the janitor, is tempted to abandon her mop, cram into an unclaimed suit, and hit the water herself. Even the killer cannot resist the pull of the pool to soothe his poison ivy rashes.
One of the joys of novels is being plunked into an unknown world, and those unfamiliar with swim teams will be entranced by Murphy’s details: the smell of the water, the heats, the aerodynamic property of different fabrics. “This is the racing suit some of the swimmers wear. It feels like the skin of a shark when rubbed the wrong way.” So seductive are Murphy’s descriptions, the reader will long to squeeze into that suit because “[w]hen you swim, you are thinking about swimming,” not murderers or dead brothers or aloof husbands.
For parents, the commitment is staggering: they “. . . go to every single meet and outfit their vans with mattresses and . . . carry their sleeping children out to the car bundled in blankets so they won’t have to lose any sleep and have their fitness compromised when they swim their races.” They wedge offspring into vise-like swimwear, manage the timing, the injuries, the concession stand, provide proper snacks for ravenous young athletes. Nutritional one-upmanship provokes competition in the healthy-food sweepstakes — “We cook fava beans . . . We bake with flax . . . We meet the steer we’ll consume throughout the year . . . We will not talk of the Diet Coke we drink . . . ”
How can such parents protect their kids? Chris takes extreme measures to find the killer. Annie realizes “[y]our girls smell like flowery shampoo and almond lotion and the usual faint tinge of chlorine. The killer would be drawn to your girls.” And Paul agonizes over incriminating himself.
A few caveats: Annie’s obsessive thinking about her brother’s suicide goes on too long. “This is you wondering how he was able to do it.” In places, you can see the author’s hand manipulating the plot, withholding information, sticking a real gun over the mantel. The action of the characters occasionally strain credulity: Paul won’t fess up even in face of so much danger; Annie won’t tell the truth about a recent attack. Nevertheless, the ending expertly sorts everybody out like the final, satisfying scene of a Shakespearean comedy. A generous writer, Murphy gives the good guys their just rewards. She’s also funny. “This is the Water’’ is the perfect, refreshing dip in the pool for the dog days of summer. Just be careful of what lurks in the stands.
Mameve Medwed has published five novels; her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet, Washington Post, among others. She can be reached at mameve@mameve medwed.com.