I first read about “Swimming” in the July/August Poets and Writers magazine. Nicola Keegan was featured in the magazine’s “First-Fiction Annual.” I read the opening paragraphs there and was intrigued by the voice of the character Philomena (a.ka. Pip). This was a good thing, as the whole of “Swimming” seems to take place within Pip’s head. But more on that later.
“Swimming” chronicles Pip’s rise as a swimming superstar– over the course of the book she makes it to three Olympics and pulls in an unprecedented number of golds. Of course with a title like “Swimming,” one assumes that there’s probably a double meaning there, and yes, there is. Pip is barely treading water when it comes to navigating difficult family situations and the emotional aspects of her own life. She’s clearly headed for a breakdown at some point, and that is some of what makes this book hard to put down. I wanted to keep reading, to learn how it was all going to work out. Or not work out.
I was absolutely taken in by Pip’s story … for the first half or maybe even two-thirds of the book. Keegan gives Pip a strong, often sarcastic voice. The opening pages are from Pip’s perspective … as a baby. An unusual choice, narration-wise, but it worked for me. I found Pip’s voice, particularly until she hit late adolescence, funny, endearing, sharp and full of the reactions a young person might have to the situations she was dealing with. I tend to have a soft spot for coming of age novels, and maybe if this one had ended with Pip reaching 20, or even 22, I think I might have enjoyed it more as a whole. Alas, it continues through Pip’s late 20s, and I was definitely slogging through the last few years. That last third of the book feels more like a psychological analysis of Pip than a novel. The other characters fall away until they exist only in flashbacks and ruminations in Pip’s head. I wanted desperately to get out of there. It was a little claustrophobic.
I enjoyed the writing more in the first half of the book, too. It was funnier (possibly out of necessity) and maybe the prose was sharper. Keegan’s style, of superlong, list-like sentences punctuated by the occasional short phrase, was endearing at first, but the long listy sentences began to grate on me toward the end. The present tense also began to wear on me, and I think causes problems for Keegan toward the end when Pip does a lot of flashing back (or maybe forward? Sometimes it’s not clear.)
The dialogue in this book seems as though it, too, emanates from Pip’s brain (it’s in italics, not quotes) and I had trouble sometimes determining if conversations were real or not. The story’s clarity begins to slip toward the end of the book as Pip retreats further into her own head. I’m not sure if this was Keegan’s plan or not, but following what was happening and understanding when and where things were taking place became more and more difficult the further I got into this book.
I did wonder throughout whether Pip was meant to be a completely unreliable narrator, but in the end I decided that was not the case. Pip is saavy enough to know that she is not processing her emotions and that she often behaves badly, and she comments on these issues in chapter after chapter.
Keegan does masterfully create the life of an Olympic swimmer here, with descriptions of training, teammates, injuries, diet, etc. (All from Pip’s perspective, of course.) Keegan says in the P&W interview that she read “every single swimmer’s bio ever written, every book on swim mechanics, swim theory and swim philosophy.” It shows. In a good way.
The claustrophobic last third of the book (which lacks much actual plot, really) is what stops me from heartily recommending this one. But in general it’s an endearing, fast read, and a good one for anyone looking to get lost in one strong voice.
“Swimming” is Keegan’s first novel, and it took her five years to write it. In the P&W interview, she says it was accepted for publication “three days after it was presented,” which I found frustratingly unclear and perhaps a PRish answer to the question. I was heartened by reading about her, though, as here she is, publishing her first novel at age 44. There is hope for those of us who are no longer 25, is what I thought when I read that.
A final comment: This novel was poorly proofread. (Was it proofread? I mean, spelling errors, missing punctuation, spacing errors, apostrophes in the wrong places, etc., etc. I read this one via Kindle for iPhone, and it made me wonder, do e-ditions of books go out earlier than other editions and thus get less editing? I hope not! I’d be curious to know if the same errors are in the print versions.