“Loneliness had been one of the few consistencies in my life for the past year and a bit. It was a gaping, untouchable kind of loneliness that I’d never previously experienced.”
The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane, is set over five days in a New Zealand June that culminate in a woman’s death. The protagonist is Erin Moore, a twenty-six year old whose mother, Helen, is suffering from motor neurone disease. Helen left the family farm to attend university, something denied Wynn and Cliff, her siblings. She raised her daughter independently, meeting with the wider family annually for a traditional dinner on the Queen’s birthday weekend. Erin is now travelling to the farm, where her mother chose to return when she required more end of life care than she could afford and her sister offered to step into the breach.
The story opens with Wynn collecting Erin from the bus on which she has made her journey north. The younger woman had not planned on visiting, but then work obligations changed. She had indulged in an affair with her married boss that was abruptly terminated. She intends to stay on the farm for just a couple of days. This plan is altered when Wynn informs her Helen has decided to take her own life the following Tuesday. Over the course of the next few days, Erin must come to terms with this. The pressure it puts everyone under leads to a reassessment of familial relationships and preconceptions.
Narrated by Erin, the unfolding tale has elements of dark comedy alongside the pathos of individuals whose lives have not gone in hoped for directions. Erin recognises her own mistakes yet continues to make them. She comes across as caustic and brittle, wading through the mud of the days before the fatal Tuesday with unspoken desperation.
“I had also needed to do something brazen, something insane that would make what was happening with my mother feel a little less insane.”
Helen has been a critical mother but she and her daughter were a team. Erin didn’t understand the reasoning for her mother’s return to the farm as Helen had rarely spoken positively about Wynn – Erin had offered to provide the help Helen needed herself. A new side to the sisters is gradually revealed showing how complex sibling relationships can be. It becomes clear that the sisters have been discussing and then planning how Helen may bring about her own death for some time, only revealing this to Erin as the final countdown proceeds.
“Aunty Wynn was a pinball machine of emotions. I think she was concerned that she might say something wrong, or something right but with the wrong tone, or that her face might reveal how little she was holding it together.”
Although a secondary character, Cliff adds much to the narrative. For the most part he exists quietly, yet clearly takes in the nuances of everything that is happening around him. He retains his own interests, keeping somewhat apart from his sisters and their absent daughters. Nevertheless, he steps in when needed. He may not be able to prevent foolish actions but can offer help to mop up the messes made.
Wynn, Helen and Erin were competitive swimmers, the focus and dedication required brought in as an occasional metaphor for the strength they must now muster. This is not, however, necessary to the plot which is about losing someone to death who has already been lost to illness. While I didn’t warm to Erin, her predicament demands sympathy.
The writing is precise and succinct, relying on character development over plot tension. There are farcical elements in certain encounters, their crudeness or illegality disturbing but also thought-provoking. In viewing the siblings only through Erin’s lens, assumptions must be made about life choices depicted. Enough background is provided but the reader may crave a little more detail and depth.
A story that leads to the death of a family member is never going to be cheery. What we have here though is the basis of an important conversation many try to avoid. Death is inevitable – and with certain illnesses predictable. A tale that explores the cost and effects on loved ones who are left to keep on living.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic.