Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Leah Swann, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 308 pages; 2020.

Sheerwater by Leah Swann is one of those rare treats of a novel that marries beautiful prose with wonderfully realised characters and then combines this with a compelling, fast-paced plot and lots of thought-provoking current issues to lend it relevance.

It’s probably best described as a literary crime novel, though it also ticks boxes for suspense and psychological thriller, too.

The third-person narrative spans three tense days and culminates in a shocking, yet totally credible ending, the sort that could have been lifted from today’s news. I came away from it reeling and I have been thinking about it ever since.

An eventful drive

The story is framed around Ava, a young woman, who has quit her job and left her husband. With two young children, Max and Teddy, in tow, she makes a long drive towards the coast, where she plans to begin a new life in a little town called Sheerwater, somewhere off the Great Ocean Road.

But en route Ava witnesses something that will thwart her plans: she sees a light plane go down in a field and decides to stop and help. Imploring her boys to remain in the car with their pet dog, Winks, for company, she attends the accident scene, but when she returns to the car, having done all she could to help the injured, she discovers that her boys are gone. Only the dog remains.

The police are called and an investigation ensues. The boys’ father is number one suspect, but how did he know Ava’s whereabouts? And why is she on the run from him?

Multiple points of view

While the story is largely told from Ava’s point of view, we also get to hear from her husband, Laurence, and her son, Max, in standalone chapters written from their individual perspectives. This is a clever device because it not only lets us see what happens to the boys and gives us some background on Ava’s marriage, it also makes the reader question who is telling the truth? Which perspective is correct?

Max’s voice is particularly well done because we get to see the complexities of the scary adult world through a sensitive nine-year-old boy’s eyes. It is, by turns, warm and tender, heart rending and brave. I can’t be the only reader who didn’t want to step into the pages to give him a protective hug.

The ending, which draws together this trio of narrative threads, is unexpectedly shocking.

Sheerwater is a truly memorable read. It’s devastating but beautiful, too, and I’m hoping this debut author turns her hand to something else soon. If it is half as good as this novel, I will be clamouring to read it.

Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed this one, too.

About the author¹: Leah Swann is the award-winning author of the short story collection Bearings, shortlisted for the Dobbie Award, and the middle-grade fantasy series Irina: The Trilogy. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in numerous literary magazines, and she works as a journalist and speech-writer. Sheerwater is her debut novel. Leah lives in Melbourne with her family.   (1. Source: Harper Collins website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia and New Zealand.

This is my 9th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 7th book for #AWW2021.  

12 thoughts on “‘Sheerwater’ by Leah Swann”

    1. I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. I expected a psychological thriller but got a beautiful nuanced literary novel that just happened to have a crime in. I hope this one gets published outside Australia at some point.

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  1. Lovely review Kimbofo. I was really unsure about how much to say about the ending, because as you read it you hope it will turn out alright! But the ending was the “right” one. Like you, I thought Max’s voice was great. Made sense to me about how a child perceives a difficult parent, in particular. She characterised him beautifully.

    BTW, she’s not quite a debut author. I’ve read her published collection of short stories , and she’s also written children’s books, but this is her debut adult novel.

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    1. Thanks, Sue. It’s always hard to know how much to reveal and how much to hold back when reviewing crime novels. I wasn’t going to mention the ending at all, but it was the ending that GOT me and I found it difficult to convey the power of the story without mentioning it. And yea, realise she’s written for children before, perhaps I should have said debut novelist rather than author. Might tweak later.

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  2. I haven’t read this review yet because I have a copy of this myself. It was on the bedside table almost next in line for reading, but now there’s your review as well as Sue’s I might leave reading it for a bit.

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  3. This sounds great! Sad that it hasn’t been published outside Australia, but glad to now have a better idea of how to get hold of Australian novels if I really want to, thanks to your tips!

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  4. I find it difficult, not so much to read, as to begin, books that have been highly praised. Once I start reading, the book speaks for itself, but the idea of am I going to agree or disagree with the reviewers puts me off starting. Still, if I can’t trust you and Sue, who can I trust!

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    1. LOL. Well, I feel like that with books that are “hyped”. I stopped looking at Twitter for that reason, because I’d see all these glowing reviews and mentions of certain books and then when I’d try the book for myself I would usually not like it very much at all. I just think my reading tastes aren’t the same as 90% of the population! That said, I can assure you I haven’t hyped this particular book…

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