Roma Tearne’s latest novel, The Swimmer, is an engrossing tale of family, love, and race relations in a quiet Suffolk village. This doesn’t sound particularly novel. It could be a tired re-hash of old themes. Fortunately, it’s much more than its synopsis.
Poet Ria Robinson has had connections to Orford all her life, through her aunt and uncle, and now lives in their house. Cold and restrained, she has had a traumatic childhood and a disappointing adulthood, so far. Formerly, she was estranged from her brother and his far-right politics, but is making new attempts to put up with him. One summer evening, she notices a young man swimming in the river at the edge of her property – a young man called Ben who, it turns out, is an illegal immigrant, a refugee who was forced to leave Sri Lanka and is working secretly for a local farmer while he waits for official asylum.
Despite the eighteen years between them, Ria and Ben fall deeply in love, and she is determined to help him gain asylum in a country that doesn’t particularly want him. Absorbed in each other, they hardly notice the drama and intrigue going on about them, as the inhabitants of Orford find more and more of their animals dead, their throats slit, while robberies have increased. Then, tragedy strikes. Ria’s narration ceases as she turns inward once more, and two new narrators take over.
This is a novel that has everything going for it (except, perhaps, humour). It is a thoughtful and partisan presentation of the way Western society treats those who need refuge – without being painfully political, without sacrificing good story-telling. It is a great example of the power of a novel to produce empathy and question existing structures.
The Swimmer is also gripping. Its three narrators are brought to life vividly and realistically, and its other characters appear on the page as if we had always known them, almost effortlessly. The narration works well in the end, shared between three women, although each new narrator brings a jolt of shock, as our absorption in one narrator’s life is suddenly brought to a close.
I enjoyed the almost futuristic aspect of the last third of the novel, and also the way Tearne weaves some positivity into the story. It is, however, quite a dark, pessimistic prognosis on the future, and so in the end this is a novel with a very ambivalent end. I was not quite sure how to feel. Be warned, then – this is not a beach read. However, it is a book in which it is easy to become engrossed. It’s an emotional experience, with a huge amount of feeling condensed into a relatively short, readable novel.
Alison Stedman is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2011, Alison Stedman