See more of the story

Diamond, the narrator of Essie Chambers' rich and insightful debut, "Swift River," longs to leave her New England hometown, a place of historic racial strife where she feels like a "spectacle,"both for being biracial and for being larger than her peers.

By 1987, she is 16 and lives in a moldering house with her mother in Swift River, vacillating between wanting to flee from home and clinging to what is familiar. Chambers is particularly skilled at depicting the way frustration and affection intertwine; the scenes between Diamond and her mother, Anna, are often simultaneously funny and sorrowful. Anna believes salvation lies in securing a death certificate for her husband, who has been missing since 1980.

In a novel full of blurry distinctions and uncertainties, the question of Pop's whereabouts hovers over nearly every page. An unexpected letter from Pop's cousin in Georgia, Auntie Lena, propels Diamond into a deeper exploration of her family's history. In the seven years of Pop's absence, various people have claimed sightings of him.

People are so racist that they "think any Black man they see is Rob,'" Anna insists. In Anna, Chambers creates an impulsive, comic character who is never a caricature; she daydreams via catalog, circling things she wants to buy and mostly never will, but she also offers insight and compassion. Her chronic pain — the result of a car accident — is a kind of narrative companion to Diamond's struggles with her own body. Of her swollen legs, Diamond harbors "a feeling of so much tenderness and pity for them, it's like they're my sick children."

In addition to Aunt Lena's letters, Chambers includes correspondence between Clara and Sweetie, Pop's ancestors, offering lyrical descriptions of Swift River before its Black occupants fled. The novel's finest, most elegiac moment is one of quiet solitude, when Diamond sits in Pop's abandoned car, taking an inventory of its faded contents — objects that are both known and full of mystery.

Echoing her parents' failed attempt to move to Georgia, Diamond decides she will move to Florida with Shelly, a friend she meets in driver's ed. Chambers gives this fantasy a shimmer of possibility that fades over time.

Swift River
Swift River

The novel is at its best in long, slow scenes through which Diamond reaches some kind of understanding: at a barbecue with Pop's co-workers; in a swimming pool with Shelly; in a car, staring at a family that she knows isn't hers, willing a connection where it doesn't exist.

The letters from Aunt Lena offer a tenuous connection to personal history, but the novel suggests that the past alone is insufficient — as Diamond herself, emerging more fully into the world, starts to believe.

Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's debut novel is forthcoming from Riverhead in 2025. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Swift River

By: Essie Chambers.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 287 pages, $27.99.