Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2018

Swim (2018), by Avi Duckor-Jones (2018 co-winner of Seizure Viva La Novella Prize)

Sometimes, when we read in the media about the terrible things that can happen to  people, we wonder how they can ever find the strength to go on living.  Swim, a slim novella that was joint winner of Seizure’s 2018 Viva La Novella Prize, is a vivid depiction of a man trying to reconcile himself to a cruel past by punishing his body in endurance swimming.  He has been around the world— the Gulf of Mexico, the English Channel— but back in coastal New Zealand, his obsession threatens to derail everything.

The author, Avi Duckor-Jones, is a Kiwi high school teacher of English, with an MA in Creative Writing, but his profile at Seizure reveals that the catalyst for this book comes from his time in Hawaii.

Back when the idea for the story was beginning to bloom somewhere in me, I was living in Hawaii and hanging out with all these big wave surfers. They were so driven to keep pursuing that one thing, and any commitment or responsibility seemed to be at odds with their desire to put themselves in this incredibly dangerous, almost spiritual place. There was no room for jobs, or relationships, or societal expectation, there was some stronger force at play, which I found incredibly interesting. The more I travelled and researched, the pattern was the same in all extreme athletes, and to an extent myself.

This disassociation from everyday life is carefully mapped in Swim so that a sense of horror dawns only slowly.  Jacob comes back to New Zealand because his mother is ill, but his relationship with her is fractured, and seemingly irreparable since his father took his own life and she then abandoned the boy, without even making arrangements for his care by others.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that she lives in an alternative world, where none of her conflicting stories reconcile with each other.  Jacob takes on the restoration of his father’s fishing shack in what seems to be a redemptive act of homage to the father who taught him to love wildlife, but is really a task to mark time until Jacob can do another endurance swim, this time to an island far out in the bay.  He thinks that if he can complete this perilous swim, it will bring him peace, and also the possibility of a relationship with the enigmatic Kiri, his mother’s carer.

In the mean time, his grasp on everyday life begins to deteriorate.  His friendship with neighbours Henry Lange and his family is tested by his increasingly bizarre behaviours.  Henry is exasperated but still willing to try to help, but his wife Kate is livid, especially when her children are put at risk.

The novella is suffused with descriptions of nature: birds, trees and of course the sea, but it is human story of a man damaged by his parents that compels the reader to the final pages.

The striking cover design is by Sam Paine, and I like the ambiguity of it. A single-minded pursuit of a goal, or an irreversible plunge into the depths. Waves nurturing the swimmer, or encircling him in a trap? Very cleverly done…

Update 19/2/19: see also this fine review by Susanne Elliffe at BooksellersNZ

Author: Avi Duckor-Jones
Title: Swim
Publisher: Seizure by Brio, 2018, 169pp
ISBN: 9781925589504
Personal copy, purchased from SeizureOnline $14.95


  1. This sounds like a good book. Interesting the challenges people put themselves through to attain peace. Me? I just eat chocolate and watch Netflix British crime series but not many books about that. Lol🤠🐧


  2. Obviously my home life wasn’t tortured enough for me to be a great endurance swimmer, though even the training I did took great chunks out of my week. The two 20 km swims I did, I found the second half both extremely painful and strangely addictive. I wish I’d done more when I was younger, but of course normal people have work, family, a social life…


    • Well, it’s a pitiful attempt at equivalence, but when I had a crook back I was told to go swimming (which physios now apparently say is not so good for a crook back). So I went swimming every day and worked my way up to 1000m. That was my goal, and when I’d achieved it (and ruined two pairs of bathers and my skin in the process), that was it. I gave up swimming and my back improved…


      • I think it was a fine goal, we all do different things well. I find swimming, especially butterfly, strengthens my back, and I only rarely get sore backs these days, from slouching when driving, or digging xML’s garden. I should say I found, but I will resume swimming ‘soon’.


        • Uh, butterfly. I never could qualify as a swimming teacher because I couldn’t master butterfly. And I was a jolly good teacher of swimming: the kids I taught had a beautiful style and could cut through the water like fish.


  3. A story about swimming AND family relationships? And a sublime cover? I absolutely have to read this.


    • I love Seizure’s novellas. I’ve never had a dud one yet:)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Swimming is such a great theme for literary fiction. I imagine this must have been difficult bur rewarding reading.


    • You’re right, it is: one of the first books I reviewed here on this blog was called Swimming by Enza Gandolfo, so rich in metaphor, and especially about swimming against the tide…


  5. The plot and the protagonist of this one sounds intriguing. Combing long distance swimming with what seems like substantial elements in a novel seems like good idea. I agree that the cover design is super.


    • I think Duckor-Jones has a great future as a writer!


  6. […] for 2018 were Anna Jackson for The Bed-making Competition (see my review) and Avi Duckor-Jones for Swim.  As you know if you read my reviews, I was impressed by both these very different novellas, so I […]


  7. […] Swim, by Avi Duckor-Jones […]


  8. […] two sisters, from debut Kiwi author Anna Jackson who shared the award with Avi Duckworth-Jones for Swim.  (This is the first time New Zealand authors have won this […]


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