Mary-Rose MacColl’s novel In Falling Snow was one of my favourite books of 2012: “… a bittersweet, touching novel that ends with an uplifting element of hope.” The same words aptly summarise her latest novel, Swimming Home. Set in the 1920s in post-war London, this new novel also deals with themes of self-discovery, family, identity, freedom, belonging and choices, as well as the experience of being a female in what was still a man’s world.
Fifteen-year-old Catherine Quick lives reluctantly in London with her aunt Louisa. She grew up on an island in the Torres Strait, enjoying a carefree, wild lifestyle until her father died. It’s thought best that Catherine be taken to London to receive a proper education, but Catherine hasn’t taken well to the new lifestyle. Life in London is cold and restrictive and Catherine longs for the warm waters of the islands, so she can swim and feel at home with herself. When she’s caught swimming in the Thames and expelled from her school, Louisa wrings her head in despair. However, her act of defiance – or was it a calling? – opens the door to new opportunities for Catherine, such as the chance to swim the English Channel.
Louisa has trouble understanding Catherine, especially her feeling that she’s trapped in her new life. For Louisa, who fought for women’s rights and has forged a career as a surgeon, education is a pathway to freedom, not a form of imprisonment. Her relationship with Catherine is disconnected, fraught with misunderstandings and expectations. It’s only when she follows Catherine to New York that Louisa is able to listen to her heart and deal with painful memories that have resurfaced since Catherine’s entered her life.
The lone swimmer, turning over now to switch to a perfectly executed back crawl, wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, wasn’t a man. It was a woman, a girl. It was Catherine. Of course it was Catherine.
Swimming Home is beautifully written. The style is understated but marked by a definite sense of place: you can almost feel the heavy humidity of the tropics, the cool dampness of London, and the biting chill of New York. Likewise, the emotions are understated, but deeply felt. The story is built on depth rather than melodrama. MacColl’s characterisation of Catherine is particularly strong; again, you can feel Catherine’s sense of displacement as much as her sense of home when her body meets open water. To her, swimming is “home”. Louisa’s character also develops well, softening over time and with good insight to her inner conflicts, but the story really belongs to Catherine.
Of interest also, are references to media interest in women swimmers, with their focus more on the women’s bathers and legs than achievements. Catherine suffers from this interest; she feels trapped, hounded, frustrated and embarrassed by what she feels is an incorrect priority. It’s a telling observation about the birth of competitive swimming for women and the challenges women would have faced at the time.
Read an excerpt here.
Available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Author: Mary-Rose MacColl
Allen & Unwin
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television