Who said country life is relaxing? Not when village gossip travels fast and grudges go back centuries. In The Night Swimmer (Scribner, $25), Matt Bondurant roams to Cape Clear Island, off the south coast of Ireland, a wind-throttled place where bird-watching tourists and goats outnumber locals. Bondurant’s heroine, Elly, thinks she’s living out an emerald-hued dream when her husband, Fred, wins an honest-to-goodness Irish pub in a contest and the two ditch their corporate lives in New England. All too soon they find out what the islanders think of “blow-ins.” With the island’s ruling family scaring away the pub’s customers and her marriage to Fred dissolving, Elly finds herself escaping to the only place she can: the water. Bondurant, the author of two previous novels and a competitive open-water swimmer, is at his best when he’s describing Elly in the ocean—feeling like “a spider crawling across the back of an elephant.” The plot stumbles slightly as Elly gets embroiled in a war between a goat farmer and the village toughs, but it’s a rare writer who can turn the hypnotic euphoria of endurance sports into a moving literary experience.
Newcomer Carter Sickels strips away all rural romance in The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, $15), finding a deeply sympathetic hero in Cole Freeman, a nurse’s aide, small-time thief, and pill dealer who has never really set foot outside of his hometown of Dove Creek, West Virginia. Courtesy of a nefarious mining company leveling the nearby mountains, constant blasts damage the foundations of homes, and people get nervous whenever it rains and the dam holding back the town’s slag-polluted reservoir begins to bulge. As Cole starts to recognize the environmental wreckage—“the forest floor was so cracked and eroded that he stopped halfway, didn’t want to see anymore”—he has to deal with the recent return of both his deadbeat mom and his onetime best buddy, who tries to get him in on a meth-cooking operation. When the dam bursts and Dove Creek is washed away by a tide of black sludge, Cole is just one voice among many crying out for justice. Though some of these elements—meth, evil mining company—seem a little familiar, Sickels fashions a miniature epic out of them, less activist tract than redemption story.