Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2021

The Swimmers, by Chloe Lane

I came across The Swimmers in August last year after seeing a Tweet from NZ author Paula Morris about it, so I wasn’t surprised to see that it has made the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards longlist.  Since I had a copy, I decided to read it before the shortlist is announced in early March.  It’s a remarkable book.

Caution: if anything in this review is a catalyst for distress, please remember that
help is available at Lifeline and Beyond Blue or counselling services in your location.

This is the blurb:

Erin’s mother has motor neurone disease and has decided to take her fate into her own hands. As Erin looks back at her twenty-six-year-old self, she can finally tell the story of the unimaginable task she faced one winter.

Around the world societies are grappling with the difficult issue of assisted dying, some of them achieving the passage of compassionate legislation to enable it with appropriate safeguards, and others unable to do so, often frustrated by religious or professional interests imposing their beliefs on others who don’t share them.  Lane’s novel, published in 2020 and presumably conceived and written before that, predates reform in New Zealand via the End of Life Choices Act 2019 which takes full effect in November 2021.  However, from what I gather from Wikipedia about the provisions of the NZ Act, Lane’s novel wrestles with the issue of choices about how assisted dying can be achieved and who may be involved in it.

Erin’s mother has been a strong, independent woman all her life, and she wants to be in control of the time, place, and ambience of her dying too.  To Erin’s surprise she has enlisted her sister Wynn in her plans, and Erin finds out about it almost by accident.  Would Erin have been told had she not unexpectedly decided to visit her mother?  Would she ever have been told? That’s one of a number of ambiguities in the novel. Because Erin narrates the story, there’s only her perspective, and it doesn’t occur to her to think about this. She’s a narcissistic twenty-six year-old, and prior to the bombshell she’s been preoccupied with the end of her affair with a married man.  It was only on a whim that she decided to join the Moore Family Queen’s Birthday weekend lunch anyway, and she was hoping her mother would think she’s come home because she missed her.  Erin is not a very nice person.

But then, not everyone confronted with such a situation is…

Erin is a flawed human being, and so is her mother.  Erin is superficial, and judgemental, and judgemental about superficial things such as home décor and clothing choices.  She thinks she’s a sophisticated city girl, at home in the world of art galleries where she has just curated her first show.  (Which was a flop.  Which may have contributed to the end of the affair with the gallery director.)  She’s judgemental about Aunty Wynn, and although Erin’s mother is beyond the power of speech now, we learn that she was judgemental about Wynn too.  But she has come ‘home’ from Wellington to the family farm at Kaipura to have her sister’s help; she didn’t seek that help from her daughter in Auckland.  Book groups that can tackle topics like this will explore the reasons: to spare her daughter?  to prevent her from interfering?  What this woman is about to do is illegal now, and will still be illegal after the new law comes into effect because the clauses of this act make it an offence to “incite, procure or counsel” and “aid and abet” someone else to commit suicide.

After collecting Erin from the bus stop, Aunty Wynn—a hearty country soul who talks too much about irrelevant things—manages the awkward task of explaining to Erin about what her mother is about to do.

”She’s good,’ she said again, taking a deep breath and exhaling audibly through her nose.  ‘Though you should know, your mum has asked me to help her exit.’

‘Exit?’ I said.

‘Die,’ Aunty Wynn said.

She was incredible to watch, my mother had once said about Aunty Wynn.  She was talking about when they were both young and still swimming competitively.  Despite how she holds herself on land these days, back then she moved through the water as effortlessly as a goddamn dolphin.  It was, to my knowledge, the only nice thing my mother had ever said about her sister.  I remembered this as proof that my mother wouldn’t enlist Aunty Wynn in this way.  The idea of my mother checking out didn’t make sense.  And even if it could be true, she would have asked me first. (p.17)

The novel, over the course of five days, traces Erin’s steps and missteps towards understanding.  As the reader wrestles with the moral dilemma that lurks at the heart of this novel, the story moves along.  Erin learns that she was wrong about her mother, her Aunt, almost everyone else and herself as well.   We watch Erin fail to understand that her role is confined to helping with things that others were going to do without her help anyway, but we also see her realise that her stupid selfish behaviour is, at this time, a disappointment to her mother, now when it’s too late to be different.

The tone is unsentimental, and sometimes blackly comic.  But the emotional toll on the protagonists is clear.  At the beginning of the novel Erin couldn’t imagine life without her mother in it. (An unsatisfactory father is offstage).  By the end of the novel, she has had to confront reality.  The reality is that losing someone you love is devastating, no matter how imperfect that love is.

The remarkable aspect of The Swimmers is that right up until the end of the book, the reader can’t be sure that the death will take place.

PS, the next day: I’ve been thinking about it more and more overnight. Especially about the bizarre things that Erin does. My grasp of human psychology is weak, but I think that what looks like entitled behaviour, or worse, inadequate plotting, is a form of displacement, a way of not thinking about what is going to happen.
But also, a longer bow, perhaps…
I taught a foster child once, a little girl of eight, who did the most awful disgusting things in her foster homes, and she lasted less and less time at each one. I was only in my middle twenties so I was horrified, but the social worker told me it was because the child, far from wanting to be on her best behaviour, knew that the foster parents who said they loved her like their own children, would only do that until she did the wrong thing and then they would send her back. Unlike the love of their own children which was unconditional, their love for her was conditional. At the age of 8 she had learned that so she thought, consciously or unconsciously, that she might as well be really naughty and get it over and done with and be sent back to state care.
So the self-destructive behaviour is a way of bringing on the inevitable: Erin’s going to lose her mother’s love on Tuesday so she may as well be awful and get it over and done with now. Similarly, the self-harm is a way of testing to see if there is anyone else who is going to look after her once her mother is gone.

Author: Chloe Lane
Title: The Swimmers
Publisher: Victoria University of Wellington Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781776563180, pbk., 214 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond, $27.42 AUD

Available from Fishpond: The Swimmers


Responses

  1. This *does* sound remarkable, and it’s a subject we avoid. I think I would want to take control of my ending but that’s still not a viewpoint that’s popular. Very tricky topic.

    Like

    • Yes. I’ve been thinking about it more and more overnight. Especially about the bizarre things that Erin does. My grasp of human psychology is weak, but I think that what looks like entitled behaviour, or worse, inadequate plotting, is a form of displacement, a way of not thinking about what is going to happen.
      But also, a longer bow, perhaps…
      I taught a foster child once, a little girl of 8, who did the most awful disgusting things in her foster homes, and she lasted less and less time at each one. I was only in my middle twenties so I was horrified, but the social worker told me it was because the child, far from wanting to be on her best behaviour, knew that the foster parents who said they loved her like their own children, would only do that until she did the wrong thing and then they would send her back. Unlike the love of their own children which was unconditional, their love for her was conditional. At the age of 8 she had learned that so she thought, consciously or unconsciously, that she might as well be really naughty and get it over and done with and be sent back to state care.
      So the self-destructive behaviour is a way of bringing on the inevitable: Erin’s going to lose her mother’s love on Tuesday so she may as well be awful and get it over and done with now. Similarly, the self-harm is a way of testing to see if there is anyone else who is going to look after her once her mother is gone.
      I’m going to add these overnight thoughts as a postscript…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Seems I need to add this to my reading list immediately!

    I’ll reserve my comments on assisted dying – as someone who works frequently with people in palliative care, and with people living with terminal illness, I find the detail of the legislation not so clear cut. And, by design, it leaves out one terminal illness that many people would say they don’t want to ever live with (Dementia).

    Like

    • Ah yes, those of us following the debate over Victoria’s law know that it’s a flawed piece of legislation. On the one hand I think it’s a miracle it got through at all, and I fear that any attempt to improve it runs the risk of repeal. On the other, it doesn’t deal with dementia and it doesn’t deal with the fundamental issue, which is the same as a woman’s right to choose. It’s not anybody’s else’s right to decide, IMO.
      Did you read Steve Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out? The title is ironic…

      Like


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