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.
Swimming 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)
Swimming was shortlisted for the 2010 Barbara Jefferis award.
Author: Enza Gandolfo
Publisher: Vanark Press 2009
Source: review copy courtesy of the author.