Book Review: The Swimmers

swimmers

“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.

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Book Review: The Hope Fault

I enjoyed Tracy Farr’s debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gauntso was happy when I received an early review copy of this, her second book. It is written in three sections and introduces the reader to an unusual family setup.

The protagonist is Iris who, over the course of a weekend, is organising the clearance of her old family holiday home in Cassetown, New Zealand. Farr has reimagined the Busselton suburb of Vasse as the location for her story. It is an up and coming area close to beaches and the Margaret River wine region. This is significant as the house was considered an investment by Iris’s ex-husband, Paul, when they made the purchase. It is he who wishes to sell. The proceeds will enable him to acquire a dream home to share with his second wife, Kristin, and their new baby girl.

I mentioned that the family set up is unusual. Arriving at the house with Iris is her grown up son, Kurt, back from university for the holidays. They bring with them fifteen year old Luce, the daughter of Iris’s best friend, Marti. Paul and Kristin arrive later in the day, with their recently born and much loved daughter, to help with the house clearance. Marti, Paul’s twin sister, will arrive the next day. All of these characters consider themselves family and appear to get on well. Iris has set aside the antagonism she once felt towards Kristin whose affair with Paul precipitated the breakdown of their marriage.

The first and third sections of the book are told from these characters’ points of view, the voice regularly shifting to enable the reader to better understand the effect of their words and actions on the others. In the background is Rosa, Iris’s elderly mother who lives in a care facility back in the city. The middle section of the book tells Rosa’s life story, moving through time from the present day to her birth.

There are many threads running through the tale. Geologists and map makers who work with the earth’s fault lines feature. These details are used as a metaphor for the fault lines running through the family. There is artistry: Kurt’s drawing; Luce’s music; Rosa’s writing; Iris’s embroidery. There are also dependencies – on alcohol and eating habits – alongside attention seeking and its effect. Kurt and Luce are particularly well rendered as they push for greater autonomy and privacy, the exasperation young adults feel towards the older generation is understood and conveyed.

The first section of the book covers the Friday and Saturday of the weekend, with the cast assembling and settling in. The narrative is kept sparse yet much is portrayed. Paul has decided that a final party will be held to which Iris has acquiesced. Through a first night dinner, the start of packing boxes and the arrival of party attendees the cast’s mindsets are unpeeled, their attitudes shared. My engagement in the story faltered as the second afternoon progressed but picked up as further threads were developed.

The second section, Rosa’s story, adds substance to the various histories so far revealed. What comes through is the way the elderly are treated, as if they have always been old, lacking in aspiration and individualism. With nearly one hundred years to cover only glimpses are given. The milestones of Rosa’s restless life contain secrets, achievements and a pivotal disloyalty. This relationship is given more pages than I felt it needed. I would have preferred more on how Rosa’s younger self came to be.

The third section returns to the holiday home and covers the Sunday and Monday of the weekend. Events of the previous night brought out a variety of irritations and weaknesses in the family members, yet most accept these as facets of people they love anyway. Iris worries about Kurt who is facing his demons. Luce is harbouring a secret, her mood volatile and resistant.

The rolling perspectives work well in portraying the mundane and how this affects different temperaments. Decisions made by adults as for the best have caused long term damage in their offspring that they struggle to articulate. What is regarded by the adults as an accepted weakness, a part of what makes the person as they are, is observed with disdain by their children.

Yet this remains a celebration of acceptance, the faults of each family member acknowledged and at times fretted over but not held against. By taking the reader through Rosa’s life we see that the children will move on, look back, and come to better comprehend. Eventually they too will see only an elderly relative in someone who was once a figurehead.

The writing offers touches of brilliance, insights that deserve further consideration. Although I found the pacing sporadic in places, my engagement wandering before once again being drawn in, the structure and premise provide an original take on family love, loyalty and affirmation. This is a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Aardvark Bureau.