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Book Review: The Swimmers by Chloe Lane

Victoria University Press, RRP NZ$30.00, Fiction

Content warning: spoilers

Chloe Lane’s debut novel, The Swimmers, follows Erin Moore over the course of one Queen’s Birthday long weekend. The annual Moore family lunch, usually held at her mother’s house in Wellington, is up at the family farm this year – because her mother lives there now. The five days in the novel are a heady, crushing family drama full of mistakes, small glories, loss and love.

The novel begins with Aunty Wynn driving Erin from Auckland, where she now lives and works as an intern at an art gallery, to the family homestead near the Kaipara Harbour. Erin’s life is a classic mid-twenties mess: a fledgling career, a messy love affair, a relationship with her mother that is fracturing further every day. Her mother, Helen, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier, and now her condition has deteriorated significantly. So much so, that she’s moved up north again, to live with her sister and brother. Erin is perplexed at the decision. But as the next five days play out, Erin realises she knows only the woman as her mother, and that she knows nothing about her mother as a sister, as a daughter, as a woman. This is a dynamic that most of us come to comprehend as we grow older: no matter how close we are to someone, they remain unknowable and mysterious even to the end.

The family dysfunction and odd interplay is familiar to most people – aren’t all families dysfunctional in some way? The characterisation is lightly drawn yet compelling, the scenes in which Uncle Cliff and Aunty Wynn have their toast – cosy and alienating at the same time. Erin feels like a loner, but she discovers over this weekend that she’s never alone, that she has a family, whether she likes them or not, that she’s one of the ‘necessary cogs in the one family machine’.

The crisis at the heart of The Swimmers is Helen’s decision to end her life. Wynn tells Erin the plan on their drive north, and the reverberations from the shock of this send Erin into meltdown. She finds herself enlisted to carry out the small details, and the large ones too, that will help her mother’s ‘Final Frolic’ go to plan. Erin is devastated and yet composed. Despite her grieving journey for her mother that began with the first signs of MND, Erin is able to help pull together the necessary ingredients – Nembutal and all.

The first-person narration is hypnotic and engaging. Erin describes the world and herself with punchy language: ‘…whenever I see photos of myself from this time, I think of the expression ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ and how much I looked like the opposite…More like I’d been through the wash too many times. Faded out. Less there.’ The prose continues like this, fuss-free and unassuming, which makes the violence of the emotional punch all the more powerful. It’s not a long book, but it pulls you into the lives of Erin, Helen, and Wynn with such force that you cannot escape The Swimmers draft. The ‘Tuesday’ section, the day Helen has chosen to seal her fate, feels much longer than it is. The events of that Tuesday featured several uncanny moments that resembled episodes from my own life, so that I read it sobbing, my whole body upset and reeling. Thinking about it now, my head tightens and I feel overwhelmed with sadness. One simple sentence, ‘We bore it out together’, tightened the moment perfectly with five ordinary words. Lane has captured such depth and heartache, sorrow and truth – I cannot remember the last time I was so moved by fiction.

The main character, Erin, is a failure and a success. These two ideas are what the novel grapples with, in many aspects of life – sport, artistic endeavours, relationships. Erin is worried about making the wrong decision, repeating the idea that ‘I didn’t trust myself to come out on top. And that’s what I was afraid of most: losing more than I already had.’ She’s worked hard all her life – trained hard for her swimming races, practicing her art, studying art history, curating her first show, trying to find love – and yet she’s failing at it all. Working hard doesn’t guarantee success. Success doesn’t make someone, or something, good. Wynn, Helen, Erin and her cousin Bethany are all struggling with fear and confidence, ambition and reward. They feel brave, and they make mistakes. They take a chance, they lose. The women – and this is a book populated and interested in women – work stubbornly toward their goals. Some are mundane goals like following the black line up and down the pool, others are considerably more frightening.

The Moore women in The Swimmers are a case study in how we behave under pressure. How we flail around in life when we don’t know how to live. The Swimmers explores beauty and ugliness, in art and in life; it’s a close study of the perfect imperfection of life. The necessary grotesque; the fleeting moments of happiness.

One reply on “Book Review: The Swimmers by Chloe Lane”

I’ve ordered a copy of this and am looking forward to reading it.
We here in Australia have taken tentative steps towards legal assisted dying, at least here in my state of Victoria and it is a subject beginning to be discussed. Are there any signs of similar reforms in NZ?

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