Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 20, 2009

Swimming, by Enza Gandolfo

Some time ago, I heard a story much enjoyed by ex-wives, about a woman greatly aggrieved  – who somehow got into the house of her ex-husband and the new trophy wife with five tins of coloured house paint and some chickens, and put them all in their bedroom.  She placed his best suits and the sexiest dresses strategically around the room, left open the cupboard doors and drawers – and opened the lids of the paint tins.  Then she shut the door and left.

It’s probably an urban myth, and as an exemplar of female revenge it pales into insignificance compared to the murderous acts perpetrated by some jealous ex-husbands, but it does illustrate the rage provoked by powerlessness in the face of betrayal.  Coming to terms with a life that doesn’t work out as planned is not easy…but it takes skill to depict it in fiction without an agenda taking over and becoming tiresome.

SwimmingSwimming by Enza Gandolfo, has the distinction of being the first book I have accepted for review through this blog, and I’m very pleased that my first venture into doing so has turned out to be so satisfying.  Gandolfo writes very well indeed…

I read somewhere recently (the newspaper? online?) that it’s inane for a reader to dislike a book because the characters aren’t likeable, and that often it’s the character who’s not very nice who turns out to be extremely engaging.  (Examples given were Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, and Humbert Humbert in Lolita.)  And it’s true that sometimes very nice characters are boring – think of that dreary Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, or Beth March in Little Women.  However the converse can also be true and the central character in Swimming, Kate Wilks,  is both interesting and nice, a Judi Dench kind of older woman not afraid to be her aging self.  I like her loyal visits to Lynne, a friend with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease; I like her tolerance of outsiders such as the bikies over the road – which leads to unexpected rewards.  There’s generosity towards the ex-husband who ran off with her friend and colleague Mai and then had children, when Kate wasn’t able to have any.  There’s also willingness to move outside her comfort zone to please Lynne’s daughter, Tess, in a way that most older women would find confronting. There’s a lot to like about this character.

The novel is a psychological journey through Kate’s life, with a chance  encounter with The Ex as catalyst.  Kate’s retired, she’s had a satisfying career as a secondary teacher (about which Gandolfo has wisely chosen not to tell us too much), and she’s enjoying life post work with her lover George and a range of activities including her beloved swimming, desultory writing and her friends.  When she bumps into Tom at Tess’s photography exhibition he wants to know if she’s happy, and would their marriage have survived if they’d had children.  (Only an Ex could ask such an impertinent question!)

Although the publisher’s blurb describes Swimming  as lyrical, it’s not overdone.  Regular readers of this blog will know that lyricism laid on with a trowel is one of my pet hates in contemporary Australian writing, but the sea as metaphor is restrained.  I like this:

I blow George a kiss.  He’s right, I know.  Having a child would have given me a different life.  Not better and not worse.  An ocean is an ocean; you can swim in many directions: towards the horizon, towards the shore, in circles, across the length of a bay.  You can swim between the flags or take your chances in unpatrolled waters.  I always chose to keep swimming.  Even on cold winter days, in stormy waters. (p251)

And I loved the unforgettable metaphor of the sand that we bring home from the beach that gets everywhere being like insistent memories of the Ex!

Whenever I’m alone, I’m with Tom.  Leaving the house, leaving Writing Sarah, longing to escape, heading for cafes, for the library, to visit Lynne, Tom interrupts everything.  Sitting on the balcony, gazing out across the marina to the open ocean, listening to music, riding in the back of the taxi, I think about Tom.  Like the sand I brought home from the beach as a child, memories find their way into all the cracks and corners. (p99)

There’s an authenticity about the dialogue that makes the first person narration work.  Swimming  avoids over-introspection with a rich cast of characters who facilitate the Big Questions without sounding forced:

Maybe,’ Kate says, ‘there’s despair in all of us.  What we thought we’d be. What we thought we’d become but didn’t.’
‘But that’s just growing up – we can’t all drive fire engines.’
‘Is it?  Is giving up, living with not quite what you want, is that growing up?’
‘Aren’t you happy with your life?’
‘I thought I’d do more somehow.  Alter something.’ (p61)

This issue of what makes a life worthwhile is central to Swimming. Childless Kate wonders how barren women in the 19th century coped with no career as solace for she finds herself diminished by the expectations of other women:

‘They expect her to have done more, to have travelled more extensively, studied longer, been promoted more often.  They expect her to be fitter, better dressed.  Happier.  Freer.  Kate never measures up.  The women expect her to support their view that if childless they would be more successful.  Kate is never successful enough.  (p185)

Kate’s renewed contact with the Ex and her subsequent friendship with his daughter seem a bit unlikely at first, but it resolves satisfactorily in the end when we know her reasons.  Memory is powerful, and while some moments disappear without trace so that the photo in the album becomes only ‘a blurred version of what it was’ (p94) other issues need resolution if contentment is to be achieved.

Minor proof-reading quibbles: staff who assist teachers are called teacher aides – with an e (p71); tension should be between Tom and me (not Tom and I)  – and why, oh why, is the graceful verb ‘to become’ turning up everywhere as that ugly Americanism ‘gotten’? (p257)

PS Vanark Press is a small, independent publishing company.  Readings and BoomerangBooks both stock this title.

Update

Swimming was shortlisted for the 2010 Barbara Jefferis award.

Author: Enza Gandolfo
Title: Swimming
Publisher: Vanark Press 2009
ISBN: 9780980350029
Source: review copy courtesy of the author.

Availability:
Fishpond Swimming


Responses

  1. Good for you Lisa … you’ve started your “new” career well!

    I must say that I am one of those who can’t understand it when people say they don’t like a book because they don’t like the characters. (It’s mystery to me, though I suppose for some identifying with characters is part of the reading experience.) But that doesn’t mean that I always want to read about unappealing characters! After all, I cried when Beth died!! The thing I like is a well drawn character – whether it be bright lively Elizabeth Bennet or that ghastly protagonist of Perfume!

    Anyhow, this sounds like an interesting book – do you think it will appeal to a wide audience?

    • I think in this one, character matters more because it’s not really plot driven – the reader has to care about the character and engage with her issues. I think that ‘women of a certain age’ will love it but I’m not so sure about the 20 somethings. (This could be selling 20 somethings short, of course). But (this is Gandolfo’s first novel) I think she has potential. She’s been reviewed by Amanda Lohrey and Helen Garner, and was launched at the MWF. Lisa

  2. Interesting Lisa, I’ll have to think about that. I can’t help thinking you can engage with issues without liking the character, regardless of whether it is plot driven, but maybe I’m kidding myself! Ayhow, it sounds as though liking this character is an important part of the book and would, anyhow, make it more enjoyable. I will look out for her in the future and remember I first heard of her here!!

  3. Yes, you’re right…I didn’t put it well. Humbert Humbert is the classic example of a character you loathe forcing a reader to engage with issues. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller is the same.

  4. Now we’re on the same page! Humbert Humbert is a perfect example!

  5. I don’t mind that Humbert Humbert is, objectively, a dislikeable person, but I would absolutely mind if Nabokov wrote about him in a dislikeable voice. It’s the prose-tone of the author I respond to, far more than the natures of the characters. Rob Sutcliff of the Avignon Quintet (I’m thinking of a book that recently left me irritable) wouldn’t be a bad man to have around in real life, but the way Durrell wrote about him, the self-congratulations, the insistence on Sutcliff’s enlightened “quiddity,” made me want to rage and skim every time I saw his name. Agnes Wickfield I find fairly unbearable because Dickens keeps gluing haloes on her head, but if I met her in person she’d probably be a handy friend. Etcetera.

  6. Indeed yes, DKS, it’s the prose-tone of Swimming that makes it work. That’s the skill of the author…

  7. There was an interview with Gandolfo in the local paper today. I can’t find it online, so here’s a summary:

    — She began writing the book five years ago because she “knew she wanted to write a novel.”

    — Swimming was “Partly […] inspired by my own experience. I’d been going through a period of trying to have a child and not being able to. Then there was that whole debate in the media around access to IVF for lesbians and how women without children were cold, hard career women. I thought to myself, none of these stories tell my story or the story of other women who are childless. That’s sort of what sparked it.”

    — The title is supposed to suggest that Kate approaches her life as she approaches her swimming. She “never gives up.”

    — The author says, “I guess it’s a book about partly what happens when you don’t get what you want. Sometimes you learn more about life from the things you don’t get.”

    — Swimming was launched by Helen Garner at the Writers Festival on August 30th.

    • I took Swimming and some other books down to Diversity Books in Mentone today (my favourite secondhand bookshop) and swapped them for PW’s The Living and The Dead and Keneally’s Bring Larks and Heroes, plus 1st editions of Swords and Crowns and Rings ($7!) and Three Cheers for the Paraclete ($7!) but I felt a little pang about parting with Swimming. If only I had more room on the shelves! It’s one of those books that lingers in the heart for a while. I hope it does well for Enza Gandolfo.

  8. I hope so too. Looking at the photograph next to the article I’m sure I’ve seen her around somewhere in the flesh. She looks familiar.

    More room on shelves would be a fine thing. I have books on the floor, books in boxes in the cupboard, and yet I keep bringing in more. Most of my book shopping is done at the local St Vinnies, where I once found the entire Alexandria Quartet for a dollar. A dollar! I gawped. And W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn for two dollars. I gawped twice.

  9. Deane, check out Brotherhood Books, the link is in my blog roll under the heading Recommended. It’s great for if you’re looking for something in particular rather than just enjoying the serendipity of a lucky find.

  10. Thank you, I didn’t know about that. I’ve got the site open now in another window. Do you know how they deliver the books? I mean: do you pay for transport, do they have volunteers who bring them by for nothing, do they send carrier pigeons, mules, aeroplanes, angels? If there’s a transport cost then I’m not complaining, only wondering if I need to add that in.

    Ha, they have a book called The Poetics of Postmodernism. (http://brotherhoodbooks.org.au/view/book/id/14519-a-poetics-of-postmodernism)

    • Hi Deane They send the books by courier. I bought rather a lot of books (no, I’m not confessing how many LOL), so mine was quite a bit. It’s a fault in the site that it doesn’t explain the freight costs. The only way to work it out at the moment is to choose what you want and then proceed to checkout, eventually the screen shows what the freight will at the bottom of your list of books. Lisa

  11. […] Swimming by Enza Gandolfo, see my review […]


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