REVIEWED BY PRISCILLA BOURGOINE
I am a fan of stories that seize my attention by their elegance, tension, and intrigue, and Ryan W. Bradley’s novella Winterswim has all three. I couldn’t put this book down.
Bradley demonstrates finesse with both his lyrical sentences and his artful suspense. He managed to intrigue this non-fan of the scary and kept me enthralled. This well-written dark, thriller about a father and son is layered with myth, religion, sex, drugs, deception, and murder. People are not always who they portray themselves to be. Days after finishing this book, the mythic and eerie ending resonates.
The crux of Bradley’s story is the shadow side some people get caught in and how evil can sometimes tighten its grip. All handled by the deft and talented hand of Bradley. We are given a ruthless killer, whom we learn has a sympathetic edge due to what he endured in his own childhood with an abusive father. But the abused boy becomes a killer and the killing becomes a taste he can’t seem tire of. Yet, we never learn the logic of why only teenaged girls become his endless target. There is a veil of boredom over the rural Alaskan town that makes the susceptibility of the young, compliant, female victims believable.
We meet Pastor Long and his teenage son, Steven, on a cold winter’s night, first at an ice-covered lake, the site of a drowning, and later as the son breaks into the local morgue. Chilling prose knocks the reader to the cliff’s edge. For instance:
“Her skin pulled from the ice like Velcro.” “She squirmed, but his hands slipped down to her neck and his grip tightened.” And “He felt a surge in his veins, as if he had smoked. His blood was electric. His temples throbbed.”
We are drawn into the surreal existence of a lurking mythic sea creature, part man and part monster. The Pastor compares the Gonaqadet to Jesus, “a man who gave his body, his life for others.”
Bradley’s sharp focus on different characters creates natural suspense as the story shifts between pivotal players. We are seized by the tension that heightens with each chapter, compelling the turn of the page like gravity fells an object to the ground. Bradley takes the ordinary and seamlessly superimposes the extraordinary throughout these 171 pages.
There are gorgeous descriptions: “Like word from God’s mouth, the aurora spread across the sky in ribbons of green.” And “The moon broke through the clouds just enough to light the room.”
Bradley offers intriguing images and action. “Ice snapped and fell apart. Pastor Long plunged into the water, like he’d been swallowed by a sink hole. He gives the reader a titillating and sensual read with fresh descriptions. “His dick pointed at Kate, like a hunting dog that had tracked its target.”
There are a few minor discrepancies. At one point, we almost see the murderer take a male victim. But he changes his mind. The reader isn’t clear why the Pastor only murders females. Also, the Pastor’s seventeen year addiction to Meth is hard to swallow. The premise seems unlikely: How could anyone sustain such a dangerous habit and not have any slip-ups without falling apart at some point? While it is believable that he would spiral out of control, becoming more and more paranoid and hallucinating that God is commanding him to murder, the likelihood of him enduring such heavy-duty, regular Meth smoking for so long seems flimsy. The length of the Pastor’s drug use isn’t as necessary to the plot as the fact that he is actively using during the timeframe of the story’s immediate present. I chalked this very minor point up to a small misstep by Bradley in an otherwise compelling, well-written story that seized me from the opening pages of the prologue and sustained my interest to the end.
Overall, Bradley delivers a fictive dream. If you are looking for an engrossing read that you won’t want to put down, that will make you want to fire up the woodstove because you will read into the dark, cold hours of an autumn night, go pick up Winterswim. You won’t be disappointed with this artful and haunting thriller.
Priscilla Bourgoine practices as a psychotherapist in a group practice outside of Boston and offers remote therapy to clients through the Manhattan-based company, Abilto. She earned a MSW from the University of Connecticut and earned an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She is an editor of creative non-fiction and fiction for r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal and Reviews Editor for Change Seven. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child; Germ Literary Magazine; Change Seven; and elsewhere. Currently, she is writing her memoir, The Floating World, about coping with the sudden death of her middle child, through a scholarship in Boston’s Grub Street Memoir Incubator Program 2015-2016. She lives in southern New Hampshire with her husband.