The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
11 April, 2011
Longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, The Swimmer is Roma Tearne’s fourth novel and once again revisits the turmoil and tragedy of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. I loved Tearne’s debut, Mosquito, which I read a couple of years ago and have been steadily collecting her subsequent novels to read. Her style of writing is assured, measured and beautiful and her themes often deal with a dark and violent past set against a contrast of a deceptively calm and peaceful present.
In The Swimmer, we meet Ria, a poet living alone in Eel House, a childhood retreat in East Anglia which once belonged to her uncle. When her brother Jack with his fascist politics and his put-upon wife and kids visits one Summer, she notices that someone has been swimming in the stream at the bottom of her garden at night. Curious, and also a little frightened, she catches sight of a young man who leaves wet footprints in her kitchen and smuggles away food. She soon gets to know Ben, a doctor and Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, who is working illegally in a nearby farm while waiting for his documents to be processed at the Home Office. A tentative friendship quickly blossoms into something more until events happen that will change their lives forever.
Initially I struggled with the first half of the book which was slow and rather indulgent. There is no question that Tearne can write beautifully, yet the pace crept too slowly as though she had to document every tiny detail. In some ways, Tearne’s training as a painter shows through and I think it is wonderful if it was slightly more contained. Part of the reason was that I couldn’t sympathise with the Ria’s character and I didn’t get much of a sense of Ben either. However, the second part of the book narrated by Anula, Ben’s mother, is incredibly vivid and makes you want to know more. Although I found Anula’s character to be harsh (and why should she be nice and soft after experiencing so much tragedy in her life?), I found I was losing myself in her story. The third chapter, narrated by Lydia, Ria’s daughter, was just annoying. In some ways I could see what Tearne was trying to do, and I think it does work, but the only character I really liked was Eric, the eel farmer who was Ria’s father’s friend and to whom all three women turn to in their time of need. As much as it is about Sri Lanka, it is also a portrait of modern Britain, from it’s faceless, impersonal cities to suspicious villages, battling with immigration and uncertainty.
I wasn’t sure whether I would like this novel, and I’m still not sure whether it actually works, but there is a raw power to it, especially Anula’s story, which struck me hard. I felt shock, heartbreak and anger when I read about the fates of the loved ones Ben had left behind. I know there’s been some mixed reactions, but I do feel that the second part of the book makes it all worthwhile and I urge you not to give up if you do decide to read this book. Although there are bits I found exasperating, especially the unsympathetic portrayal of most of the main characters, there is something about The Swimmer that has burrowed into my brain. Maybe it’s the resonance of what has happened in Sri Lanka, which Tearne is trying to work through in her novels and which every Sri Lankan is questioning, that affects me, but there is a harshness and a sadness which lingers. And maybe that’s the effect Tearne is after.
I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge.
I would like to thank the lovely people at Harper Collins for kindly sending me a copy of The Swimmer to review.