Oakland Ross’s Swimming with Horses is a multilayered adventure that is part mystery, part coming-of-age tale.
The story vacillates between apartheid South Africa in 1962 and a small Ontario town a year later, when Hilary, a “wild” eighteen-year-old girl, arrives in town. In Ontario, rumors fly about Hilary’s mysterious, scandalous past in South Africa. She is staying at the homestead of the Barker family and befriends Sam, a fifteen-year-old neighbor who has a mad, unrequited crush on her. Despite their age difference, Hilary spends a lot of time with Sam. They often go horseback riding together to bolster Sam’s equestrian skills.
Hilary is the daughter of a prominent white businessman in South Africa. She befriends a farmhand, Muletsi, who may not be who he appears to be, all the while trying to avoid her father’s creepy employee, Jack. Nelson Mandela makes a cameo appearance in the book as well.
Alternating points of view allow the backstory to unfold in a seamless manner, tying together loose ends and explaining how and why the characters came to be where they are. Only Sam’s chapters are told in the first person, allowing the reader deeper access to his psyche. Hilary and the other characters are kept at arm’s length, adding a level of intrigue to the story.
The book is essentially a murder mystery, but it is also an exquisite literary achievement. Language is evocative, painting indelible portraits of the starkly beautiful South African landscape and the remote Ontario countryside.
The final chapters take place thirty years into the future, narrated by a now fortysomething Sam who cannot rest until he learns what happened to Hilary after she suddenly disappeared from his life that fateful summer. Twists and turns, along with a surprising revelation in the book’s final pages, make for an absorbing reading experience.
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