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.

24 Responses to “The Swimmer by Roma Tearne”

  1. Vindi Says:

    I resolved not to read The Swimmer after the disappointment of Brixton Beach. However, I do agree with you that Tearne is an indulgent writer- granted she does write beautifully. But I do think her indulgence doesn’t end there. Yet, her very painterly evocations of Sri Lanka (albeit very irresponsibly factually inaccurate most of the time) also has me coming back for more.

    Your review piqued my interest, so now the question is, to read or not to read? 🙂

    • sakura Says:

      I’ve got both Bone China and Brixton Beach on my shelf. I’m curious to see how they compare to both Mosquito and The Swimmer too. She’s definitely a writer who likes to stir things up and it works. Infuriating but beautifully written.

  2. I’m relieved to see your review this morning, because it almost exactly mirrors my own experience of the book. I finished it last night, having read both Anula’s and Lydia’s sections back to back, and was utterly infuriated. Although I thought Anula’s narration was beautiful and sad and reflected the Suffolk landscape perfectly, I felt the novel as a whole was very contrived. It seemed as though Tearne had sat down saying, ‘right, I want to explore the experience of asylum seekers, and the insularisation of Britain, and the steady rise of right-wing politics’ and then set about doing that, rather than letting these things arise naturally from the characters. It led to all sorts of unlikely plot contortions. The terrorist storyline, for example, was so weak, set up just so that armed police would be in the right place at the right time.

    But overall I think you’re right. I nearly gave up on the book after finishing Ria’s section, but I was glad in the end that I read on into Anula’s. Because it showed me very clearly that Tearne is a good writer, and that Ria’s indulgent, chilly voice was a function of her personality. It was worth reading for this middle section alone. I could have definitely done without Lydia though. And I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to read more Tearne any time soon.

    • sakura Says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one too! It certainly was a difficult review to write just because I had very mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand I found it beautifully written but then there were so many things I disliked. It certainly left me with strong feelings. I also agree about the terrorist storyline because it wasn’t really the main focus of the tale and could have been expanded more.

  3. savidgereads Says:

    I got annoyed with this book, and while I agree Anula’s voice and story was really interesting the rest of the book felt a bit like the writing equivalent of painting by numbers. All well written but all a bit of a cliche too. ‘Oh I will have a terrorist story as that’s controversial’ kind of thing. A shame as I liked the opening, then went off it, then liked it and then didnt again. Overall interesting but nothing special. Ooooh, I am getting harsh – its too much time in hospital with cantancerous patients on the same wards lol.

    • sakura Says:

      I think there were many things that annoyed me, especially the characters. But I did think it was very powerful and showed some of the issues that probably bugs Tearne (as she seems very politically active). Not easy reading for sure. But yeah, a lot of people have picked up on the terrorist storyline that didn’t seem to go anywhere.

  4. Mystica Says:

    Tearne is an author I have tried to find here – another challenging book obviously. Thanks for the review.

    • sakura Says:

      I got her first novel in Sri Lanka before it was available here, but I’m not sure whether I’ve seen her others, although I’m sure they would be available soon. It would be interesting to see how other Sri Lankans (of all ethnicities) review the book.

  5. gaskella Says:

    I liked this book, and I also loved Brixton Beach. Eric was the star of The Swimmer for me, an absolute rock. I found her painterly descriptions of the sea and landscape in both books wonderful. She is an interesting person though, I met her last year and she showed us her sketchbooks, and told us how she wouldn’t go back to Sri Lanka until things change.

    • sakura Says:

      I’m going to see her talk next month and I’m sure it’s going to be an explosive discussion. She doesn’t hold back, does she? Glad to hear you loved Brixton Beach as I’ve got it on my shelf:)

  6. Eva Says:

    I read Mosquito last year and wasn’t completely sold on it, so I think I’ll go for one of her other books as a second read and ignore this one, for now at least! 😉

  7. novelinsights Says:

    I think that’s an excellent point about Tearne ‘working through’ the Sri Lankan experience. My experience of Brixton Beach was that it felt as if there is alot she wants to say but the way she says it is a little awkward, yet if refined could be something rather special.

    • sakura Says:

      Nicely put Polly! I think it becomes difficult when the issue is something that is still very raw and emotive, especially since the whole conflict is still so recent.

  8. itoeri Says:

    thanks for the post! otherwise i wouldn’t have known about her other works. i still want to try this book even if i end up stopping half way, to experience some of her beautiful writing. esp the part of the encounter with the swimmer.
    and she is a painter?!

    • sakura Says:

      Yeah, she’s originally a painter and I think she’s working on something for the Venice Biennale. You should definitely read the book just to see for yourself. Everyone’s perspective is different. It’s certainly a book that provokes a reaction.

  9. Chinoiseries Says:

    I just finished The Swimmer today! And I could not agree with you more, as much as the first two parts were very good, the part about Lydia was annoying indeed. I found it hard to decide whether I liked it or not, but in the end I figured the good outweighed the bad.
    Wishing she’d have written more about Sri Lanka instead of Orford though!

    • sakura Says:

      I agree! I preferred the bits about Sri Lanka more than England. They seemed more colourful, alive and immediate. Quite a contrast to England bits.

  10. I saved your response to this one so that I could read it after I’d finished my Orange Prize reading for this season; The Swimmer was near the end of my list. I really enjoyed reading the comments here and find it interesting to consider them alongside my own reading experience, which was rather different and, seemingly, much more positive.

    Although I do agree that some of the characters were frustrating, that worked as a strength for me: they were credible, enough so that I was aggravated and impatient at times.

    I found the layering in the themes, the variation in styles, and the interconnections between the segments were quietly sophisticated and worked to engage me in a novel that had a surprisingly “light” looking cover and “cozy” sounding blurb. I was so impressed!

    • sakura Says:

      I’m really glad you liked it. I think part of the reason for my response is that the events probably affect me more because I’m half-Sri Lankan. I try to be unbiased in my reading, but there are certain stories that just affect me more and hence I become more critical. In some ways, it helps me work through my feelings and try and understand what is happening in the story.

  11. So you find yourself wishing, say, that she had emphasized different aspects of the story (politically or relationally or otherwise)?

    I can see where that would change the reading of it, regardless of how you might try to approach a book neutrally; how can we not read subjectively, take it personally, when we invest so much of ourselves in the process?

    • sakura Says:

      I’m not really sure. I really liked the chapters narrated by Anula more than Ria. But then I think Tearne probably did that deliberately to emphasise the difference in culture and what was happening. I’m not sure whether I understood Ria that well. I’m glad you commented because it’s made me think about the story again:)

      • Anula’s chapters were my favourite part of the novel too, in that I felt she put so much more of herself on the page. (Which, with what Eric says about Ria, makes sense.) The way that she dealt with her sadnesses was so much more accessible.

        I’m not sure Ria understood Ria either, so no wonder you felt disconnected there. It does seem a risky thing to have begun the novel with such a hard-to-reach character; I’ve been trying to think if there was a way that she could have structured it differently, but I can’t think of a way, other than excluding Ria entirely and choosing another voice. (Which feels kind of mean! ::grin::)

        Which makes me wonder: why DID she choose such a distant narrator to launch the tale? Is that, in itself, a symbolic choice?

        Your comments here have really gotten me thinking, too; I might end up reading another of her novels sooner than I thought. Is there another on your list?

        • sakura Says:

          Agh, you’ve got me thinking too!;P I’ve only read Mosquito, Tearne’s first novel which I really liked, but have the other two on my shelf. I’m planning to read Bone China next (although I’ve got quite a few books I need to finish first) which she said is supposed to be more slightly more humorous than her other novels. Brixton Beach also had some mixed reviews although a lot of publicity. I’ll be checking in to see what you think.

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