Book review: The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt

Thursday, September 24, 2015 Permalink

Just over a year ago I read and reviewed Jane Shemilt’s debut novel, Daughter. I enjoyed the book though moaned about some of the characters (who I wanted to slap around the head!). The book centred around the unexplained disappearance of a teenager and busy professional parents (both doctors) who were overcommitted and struggling with guilt as a result of their work / family imbalance.

I note that Shemilt and her husband are both medical professionals (she’s a retired GP) and the subject of grief and its impact is of interest to her; so it’s little wonder her latest book explores themes similar to those in Daughter.

The blurb

Emma and Adam are doctors at the top of their fields and so when they are offered the chance to take their three children to Africa for a year for a research placement it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s going to be an experience they’ll never forget.

But for all the wrong reasons.

When Emma arrives home one night to the sickening sight of an empty cot, their family’s dream adventure turns into their worst nightmare.

Thousands of miles from home and from anyone who can help, they must discover the truth. Is this a random abduction, a tragic accident or something far more sinister?

the drowning lesson

My thoughts

Emma describes her relationship with Adam as being ‘evenly weighted with work and success’. They’re competitors she explains. Both high-achievers and she feels she’s lagging behind as a result of taking time off to have their two daughters.

When Adam initially raises the idea of going to Botswana Emma refuses:

… Adam would be free to work as hard as he wanted. He’d publish new work, I’d achieve nothing. He’d win; though he denied it was like that, I never believed him. How could anyone not want to win? p 8

But when Emma unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, taking a year of absence makes sense.

Adam happily settles into his research work and life in Botswana, but Emma struggles. With a housekeeper, tutor and nanny for her kids her own research isn’t enough to keep her busy so she returns to work at a local clinic. It’s not surprising then that she blames herself when she arrives home one day to find her baby boy missing.

Emma and Adam have no idea where to start looking and they’re caught between local traditions and superstitions and their own need to do something.

This book was a bit of a sleeper. It felt a bit slow in the beginning and I struggled a little with Emma’s extreme competitiveness. She implies it’s a ‘thing’ between the pair but none of it seemed to come from Adam. Having said that, we’re privy to Emma’s backstory so learn where her need to succeed comes from.

The disappearance of their son shocks Emma and Adam out of their respective self-obsessed bubbles while also pulling readers out of our complacency. I couldn’t put the book down, hoping for the best, but conscious it’s the sort of book that doesn’t necessarily end happily. Emma’s suspicions grow out of control and cracks appear in her relationship with Adam and others she once trusted. The whole family is suddenly laid bare and starts to unravel.

And there’s the inevitable question no parent wants to face when it comes to their children: at what point do you give up on them? Do you continue to focus on a child you may never see again or those who are there and still need you?

The Drowning Lesson by Jane Shemilt, was released by Penguin UK (and Penguin Australia) on 24 September 2015.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley from the publisher for review purposes. 


  • Michelle Weaver (@pinkypoinker)
    September 24, 2015

    Sounds like one with potential. Great review as usual 🙂 I might learn something about Botswana too.

    • Debbish
      September 24, 2015

      There’s not a huge amount about Botswana Michelle and there’s more about beliefs and customs than any sense of ‘place’ – if that makes sense.


  • Stormi D Johnson
    September 24, 2015

    It sounds kind of interesting but at the same time I am not sure. Great review. 🙂

    • Debbish
      September 25, 2015

      It’s a difficult book to describe Stormi. It’s quite different to anything I’d read before. Not really a mystery or suspense novel and a bit slow in places but all comes together nicely at the end.

  • bakeplaysmile
    September 25, 2015

    Oh every time I read a book review I think that I should really read a book!!! I used to read all the time and I havent picked up a book for months now!!!!

    • Debbish
      September 25, 2015

      Am sure you’ll get back into the habit when you get time. I’m the opposite and currently reading a bit too much and having to pull back a little!

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