The plan was to read a few chapters of Paddy Richardson's latest novel, Swimming In The Dark (Upstart Press), before having an early night. Hours later I was still there, utterly hooked into the story, obsessively turning the pages, sleep forgotten. It's that sort of book.
Set in Alexandra and partly in Leipzig, this is a story about survivors. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is a smart kid who is managing to rise above being a member of one of the town's dropkick families. Then she is singled out by a local man. What begins as a couple of friendly exchanges rapidly becomes more sinister. He follows her. He touches her. Finally he misuses his position of authority in the town and seriously and repeatedly abuses her.
Serena is too scared to tell anyone. Her grades at school start to suffer, she turns moody and gains weight. Eventually she disappears. The only member of her family concerned enough to try to find her is her switched-on older sister Lynnie, the one real success of the clan.
She doesn't believe the local cop's story that Serena is a runaway; that she was getting into booze and drugs. She fears something very bad has happened. However, the only real lead Lynnie has is a teacher who apparently saw bruises on the teenaged girl and reported it.
Meanwhile schoolteacher Ilse Klein and her mother Gerda are leading quiet lives in Alexandra. Having escaped oppression and fear in Leipzig before the fall of communism in East Germany, Gerda in particular is anxious they should do nothing to draw attention to themselves.
Ilse goes for a night-time swim in the local river. There she finds Serena, one of her students, giving birth, terrified and alone. She rushes her home to her mother who insists on helping the girl, hiding her and her baby from the authorities.
Otago writer Richardson has jumped about between the genres in her fiction career. She started out being literary then took up crime. It's almost as if she was putting in the groundwork for this novel which kind of fuses the two - there is the pace of a thriller matched with the thematic heft of a more literary work.
Where it falters a little is in the final third. The story is striding dynamically towards the denouement when it is interrupted with the telling of Gerda's history. This is a key part of the book but it wears its research too obviously and feels heavier-handed than the rest.
Richardson's inspiration for Swimming in the Dark came when she attended the Leipzig Book Fair and had a chance to explore the city and learn about its history. But it's when she writes about the places she knows well that the story and characters really sweep the reader along. Then it is a furious page-turner and Richardson's best work yet. Just don't read it when you're planning an early night.