Roma Tearne’s The Swimmer
HarperPress-HarperCollins, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Sometimes the placement of a book in your reading schedule can impact that book negatively; it might unfairly cast a light on shortcomings, either the reader’s or the storyteller’s. (I should have not read A Visit from the Goon Squad when I did, and there is my letter of apology to it.)

But sometimes a book slips into the stack in the perfect position, offering the contrast that a reader is craving.(I read The Swimmer after Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie and Leila Aboulela’s Lyrics Alley.)

Following a novel (or two) with a rich and sensuous setting and a wide-reaching arc of characters, a reader is in the perfect position to appreciate a solitary and inward-looking character like Ria, whose voice opens Roma Tearne’s fourth novel.

The Swimmer begins with Ria — short for Maria — Robinson and, indeed, her segment of the narrative, which is divided into three parts, occupies the bulk of this novel.

Partly this is because readers need to become acquainted with elements of the story that Ria is best equipped to display. And partly it’s because Ria requires that many pages because she spends so much time in her head.

And maybe this is partly because Ria is a poet, destined to circle and spiral in search of meaning that refuses to be captured in stanzas. But it’s also partly because there are things that have happened to Ria that have left her feeling overwhelmingly apart.

As another character describes it, it’s not because she is unfeeling, but because she does not express her feelings. “She shuts down. Ever since she was little. It’s her way of surviving.”

Ria is aware of her inwardness, and she turns to her work, to her poetry, to release her pain.

“‘What’s wrong with me?’ I muttered.
Maybe I had overworked myself last night. The draft of the poem I had written in an alcoholic haze wasn’t quite right yet. What had seemed luminous and neat in the darkness was a little clumsy. I would have to work on it much more. Perfection did not come without pain, but I wasn’t in the mood tonight.”

The first 120 pages of this novel are just like that, with Ria’s existence so incredibly interior, her language very nuts-and-bolts-ish, her desperation to connect surfacing in odd and unexpected ways.

(In another reading mood, I can see where I might have found her voice off-putting, her observations and outbursts aggravating; I might not even have made it through the first segment to find out how different the last two segments of the novel are stylistically.)

(But, as it was, I had perfect placement for this in Orange Prize Season, and so I didn’t have a problem getting to page 120. Well, not the problem of not reading on, as it were. I’d set myself the goal of finishing that first segment one night before bed, and I did that easily.)

[Do you still want to know the problem that I did have? Something happens on page 120. And that meant that I had to read the next chapter of the second segment. And that meant I had to stay up until I’d finished the novel. And that meant I was sloggy and half-brained the next day. But that’s a fantastic problem to have, isn’t it, when a novel keeps you up half the night.]

Reference is made early on in The Swimmer to Jean Rhys’ writing and it’s a perfect allusion; both thematically and stylistically, there are similarities. (Although I found that Roma Tearne’s book resonated more strongly with me emotionally, largely through the accumulated strength brought to the narrative by the combination of voices, whereas Rhys’ narratives are more often singular in nature.)

Both writers have written of island nations and, so, naturally, water plays an important role in their works. (Well, you would have guessed that, just from these titles — The Swimmer and Wide Sargasso Sea — right?)

The Swimmer is, er, soaked in it. And, yes, there is actual swimming. But the way that water permeates the story is far more insidious, appearing in broad strokes and inferences throughout the text.

For Ria, water is inextricably bound with a very significant memory (a happy one, but one linked with a sad one), one which she holds close, just as she refuses to fence off the riverbank on her property.

It’s not quite the same for the character in the following segment, but it echoes Ria’s experience beautifully: “Memories rushed forward, rolling and flattening out against my totally lucid brain, giving me word-pictures again and again. So that, even as I struggled to deal with one image, raising my head above the waters, I was knocked back by another.”

Ria’s river is vitally important, both literally and figuratively, but water appears throughout the narrative, across segments. A baby’s eyes are shining pools, rain melts snow, a gull’s cry is heard, the dampness of night air is felt, a father gives his daughter a copy of The Mill on the Floss, and there are willow trees and dragonflies: water is everywhere. (I’m sure I’ve missed as many references as I’ve spotted, and I’ve only mentioned a handful.)

This kind of soft detail quietly supports the narrative in ways that are difficult to discuss without the immediate context of plot events, but there are many layers and connections throughout The Swimmer.

Sometimes these are drawn primarily with language, allowing the reader to slip back into another event.

For instance, in one segment, grief zigzags through a woman’s mind; in another, a man zigzags a field with an attacker in pursuit.

And, in another example, in one segment a man’s hand is raised in farewell; in another, a man’s hand is raised, as if in protest, as a man falls to his death. These are such haunting scenes, each of them independently but overwhelming so when they are viewed holistically.

And sometimes the layers are sketched more broadly, across segments.

In such a way, female characters across the novel, who have concealed things out of shame, find varying kinds of release from that binding. (I don’t mean the usual sorts of things that women feel ashamed about, not so much “bad” things — in fact, sometimes they are quite lovely things — but things which have translated into something about which they feel ashamed. These connections are very quietly layered through the novel, which is all the more powerful, I think.)

It’s a broader stroke still which allows the novel to be read around a river in a different way, a way which focusses on the two banks that form its sides more than on the body of water that separates them.

This would apply to political matters that intersect with the novel’s events both in the Sri Lankan and English settings (wherein opposing bodies with greater power wield that power against members of smaller groups who seek freedom/asylum). As one character says: “How does a nation appear so charming individually yet behave so monstrously collectively?” The personal sense of isolation that readers encounter in Ria as the novel opens expands into something else entirely as the novel progresses, when viewed in this context.

Roma Tearne’s novel The Swimmer is a novel that could be read on the surface as a love story (or two) but it has unexpected depth. (And there goes my theory that I might not be able to fall in love with an Orange Prize book now that I’ve read this far down the longlist:  but, at book 17, I can still swoon.)

What do you think?

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 17 of 20 (Roma Tearne)

Originality Combines familiar elements in unexpected ways
Readability Strong beyond the first segment (which might require some patience)
Author’s voice Distinct for each of the three narrators
Narrative structure Tri-partite, clearly connected and layered
Gaffes None spotted
Expectations Binding and blurbing makes it look a little “light”