“Sheerwater” is a nerve-shredder.
It’s a novel of urgent, breathtaking suspense that had me turning its pages fast — white-knuckled, goose-fleshed, stomach churning with unease — as I raced towards its mercilessly poignant conclusion. But Leah Swann looks too deeply and evokes too much honest pain for it to be classified as a mere thriller. Her debut novel is as propulsive as it is heart-wrenching. It is powerful and crushing.
It is one of the unmissable Australian novels of the year.
There is a rhythm and structure to “Sheerwater” that’s easy to take for granted, but much harder to pull off than some readers might give it credit for. The same can be said of its plot which, summarised, sounds comfortably conventional, but is actually the perfect vehicle for Swann’s exploration of a toxically dysfunctional relationship; the bond between a mother and father and their children, and its distortion into something terrifying. Through its simple premise we understand the power and resilience of a mother’s love, and the consequences of domestic violence.
Swann wrong-foots readers from the start. Ava and her sons, Max and Teddy, are driving to their new home in Sheerwater when a light plane careens into the field next to the road. She does the right thing — hurries to help the pilot and his passenger — and when she returns to her car, the boys are gone. Is their disappearance linked to the plane crash? Surely not; but Swann dangles the possibility. More than likely it was her husband Lawrence; but he has a solid alibi. Which leaves — what?
Swann jumps from beat to beat, giving each character just enough development and humanity for them to register as genuine, but not lingering long enough for readers to get impatient. Every sentence, every paragraph, every scene is charged with urgency. “Sheeerwater” is a visceral experience. We are never released from almost unbearable dramatic tension. It hits hard — it is impactful, truly harrowing, and ultimately haunting — because the origin of evil that lurks within these pages is the human kind. It’s man.