Release date: August 4, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ (7/10)
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Night Swim was written by Megan Goldin, and is set to be released by St. Martin’s Press on August 4th, 2020. Goldin is the bestselling author of The Escape Room, so this isn’t her first foray into the mystery/thriller world. The book’s tagline reads, “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.”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Rachel Krall is the host of the very successful podcast Guilty or Not Guilty, where she examines one specific true crime case each season. In her first two seasons, Rachel has helped put guilty people behind bars, and even released innocent ones who were wrongly convicted.
In a bid to keep her popularity and ward off the many copycat podcasts who are repeating her successful formula, she decides to go inside a rape trial for her third season. It’s a somewhat controversial decision, but she’s determined to put her listeners “in the jury box,” so to speak, so that they feel like they have a stake in the outcome of the trial. This requires traveling to a small town on the east coast, where a local boy and champion swimmer has been accused of raping a 16-year-old. Determined to provide an impartial overview, Rachel schedules meetings with all of the parties involved and documents each day at trial for her listeners.
In fact, as we’ve learned in the ‘Me, Too’ movement, half of these people don’t even think about themselves as rapists, thanks to toxic cultural norms. If you’ve seen the pictures on social media showing protest signs that read, “How come every woman knows someone who’s been raped, but no man knows a rapist?”, you’ll know what Goldin (and I) am referring to.”
However, immediately upon her arrival, she is flooded with mysterious letters from a woman named Hannah who is determined to have Rachel tell her own story. Hannah writes about her sister Jenny, who she says was murdered 25 years earlier in the same small town. Rachel tries not to get involved but finds herself drawn to Hannah’s story; soon she’s trying to keep up with a grueling trial-and-recording schedule, while also digging into Jenny’s mysterious death from decades prior.
As the trial unfolds and the locals become familiar faces, Rachel begins to see connections between both Jenny’s story and Kelly’s case. Who among the older residents can she trust, and why – 25 years later – are people compelled to either continue keeping secrets, or lying to keep them from coming out? And what will it cost them all to find out the truth?
MY THOUGHTS: This was my first work by Goldin, but – and keep this in mind as you read my honest opinions below – I will definitely read her future books. The topics covered in this novel – rape, podcast culture, the justice system – are very timely and reflect too many true-to-life cases to count. Goldin does a good job allowing Rachel to reflect on what this idea of rape culture, and victimology, does to both the accused and the accusers, and her incredibly detailed reflections on why rape victims do not report their crimes are hauntingly realistic. I’ll reflect more on that at the end of my thoughts here…but now, for my brutally honest take on this book.
I actually thought this was a debut by Goldin (having not read any of her previous works, and also clearly having overlooked the blurb about her previous novels). Why, you may ask? Well, to be fair, the book felt like a first draft in need of a good polish and editing. For one, the initial dialogue between Rachel and her producer Pete was a bit cringe-y, and I say this lovingly as a wannabe writer who has the hardest time crafting realistic dialogue. It seemed stilted and as if it were set up just to info-dump, while not actually sounding like how ANYONE would really talk. (For example: “It was bound to happen,” sighed Pete. “You are a household name.” And: “I could ask the cops to look into it. See what they can find out,” Pete offered. “My contact in the FBI said we shouldn’t hesitate to file a complaint after the death threats you got last year. I still have his card with his direct number,” he added.)
Secondly, I didn’t feel like all of the scenes were necessarily realistic. I, for one, am from a small town, and I don’t think anyone would ever erupt into a heated (yet very generalized “guilty/not guilty”) argument about a local trial in the grocery store lines, with the clerk taking part as well…but that’s just my experience. It’s also not terribly likely that years after one young girl’s death, someone would still have graffitied “whore” on her tombstone, especially when the boys who raped her repeatedly were all dead or had suffered tremendous medical consequences. The waiter at the local hotel also probably wouldn’t point out that you look like you’re there for a murder trial because “you don’t have a vacation vibe,” and also simultaneously say that the town is small (“Everyone knows the boy involved. Some personally and some by reputation. And this town is small enough that people can pretty much guess who the girl is”) and then, four sentences later, say the exact opposite unironically (“I don’t think it’s true that everyone knows everyone here. Maybe once. Neapolis isn’t a small town anymore.”)
WHAT I LIKED: Now, with THAT out of the way…I truly enjoyed the way the book was structured (and that has NOTHING to do with the fact that I myself have written an entire outline for a mystery book with podcast episodes included as part of the plotline). I didn’t particularly connect much with the main character of Rachel, likely because we know literally nothing about her except what she does in regards to researching this case, and her podcast musings. However, I felt like the podcast “episode” chapters gave us the most insight into her thoughts as a character, and thus gave Goldin (as the author) a place to air her deepest thoughts on rape culture and how the victim is always the one who pays the price for the crime that happened to them – regardless of whether or not the perpetrator is caught, convicted, and serves time. (Hearing the details of what happens when a rape kit is taken in the hospital was incredibly horrifying, and I could easily understand why so many women wouldn’t bother to go through this after an assault.)
The reality is that these types of situations – both Jenny’s and Kelly’s – do happen every single day, and often the perpetrators go on to live seemingly normal lives (as per Jenny’s murderer in the novel) and/or aren’t even convicted (see: real-life Brock Turner, who was actually witnessed and stopped mid-crime yet was spared jail time to “preserve his future”). In fact, as we’ve learned in the Me, Too movement, half of these people don’t even think about themselves as rapists, thanks to toxic cultural norms. If you’ve seen the pictures on social media showing protest signs that read, “How come every woman knows someone who’s been raped, but no man knows a rapist?”, you’ll know what Goldin (and I) am referring to.
Goldin does a good job allowing Rachel to reflect on what this idea of rape culture, and victimology, does to both the accused and the accusers, and her incredibly detailed reflections on why rape victims do not report their crimes are hauntingly realistic.”
Goldin makes some very valid points about how the system victimizes rape victims continuously even after the crime is long past. In one of her episodes, Rachel opines, “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.” She goes on to say, “The trauma of testifying is one of the main reasons why so many rape victims opt not to testify and why so many rapes are never prosecuted.”
As Rachel says in her podcast episode, and Goldin is saying overall with this book, our society is more than willing to discuss grisly murders in great detail – but rape, not so much. True crime is a booming industry right now, and there are thousands upon thousands of social media groups dedicated to discussing Bundy and Gacy and Keyes, and dissecting their every preference and action. But we feel uncomfortable even using the word “rape,” and – like some of the characters in this novel – many people want to say it’s a gray area in a world of black and white. Goldin wrote this novel to show the importance of recognizing the trauma that rape victims go through, and to point out that we should be just as horrified by every sexual assault and sex crime that occurs as we are by murder and carnage. As she says in the novel, rape victims are still alive to relive the assault and the trauma every day – and they deserve our care and respect for what they’re going through.