Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Drowning Lessons.



Swimming is Nicola Keegan's first novel, and despite being about a small-town Kansan who becomes a record-breaking, gold-medal drenched athlete, it is not uplifting or inspirational at all. Thank God, because Keegan wisely leaves that kind of dreck in the ghetto of ghostwritten 'memoirs' where it belongs.

Keegan's narrator, Philomena Ash (unwillingly nicknamed "Pip") is a rather typical teenage girl, aside from her phenomenal natural talent for swimming. She's insecure, lonely, beset by the insecurities that come with being six feet tall with massive feet and shoulders and finding herself increasingly unmoored in a family that is facing an unusually harsh set of circumstances.

Swimming opens with Pip narrating the first year of her life, in the way that you repeat those family anecdotes that become folkloric as you get older. Baby Pip apparently has never slept two hours straight, and her exhausted parents, Mom already pregnant again and both addled from sleep-deprivation, take her to an infant swimming class where she shows an uncanny comfort in the water, swims herself tired, and then sleeps for an entire day.

Despite her obvious aptitude for and love of swimming, Pip's parents are reluctant to let her pursue it seriously, although more through inattention than any clearly articulated reason. Her parents are preoccupied with Pip's older sister, who has Hodgkin's disease and is clearly declining, taking her mother's sanity with her.

After her sister's death and her father's apparent suicide, Pip's family doesn't so much shatter as slowly come unraveled. Her mother immures herself in her bedroom, her younger sisters take two diametrically opposed paths to dealing with their grief (rebellion and sainthood - really, two sides of the same coin). Pip, by now stratospherically taller than anyone else in her tiny Catholic school and with no signs of puberty on the horizon, only feels accepted in the pool. Finally wrenching a concession from her mother to let her travel to California to train seriously, Pip is finally free to immerse herself in the only place where things make sense.

Pip goes on to become a record-breaking Olympic athlete, squaring off against the notoriously steroided East German swim team and surrounded by a cadre of nutritionists, coaches, stroke masters, and others single-mindedly dedicated to swimming. Meanwhile, her family continues to crumble. Pip's swimming career is eventually derailed by an injury, and without the crutch she's depended on her entire life, she realizes how uniquely unequipped she is to deal with anything outside of the water.

Swimming, the activity, and Swimming, the novel, are a sort of extended metaphor. Like the pool, Pip's narrow universe - coaches, swimmers - is self-contained and protective. Keegan's descriptions of how swimmers are turned into machines so delicate and precise that a single missed breath or contraband candy bar can make them crash is fascinating, and she does an excellent job of rendering the claustrophobic, exclusive world of the athletes, a world that promptly abandons you once your usefulness is over.

Pip herself is a rather claustrophobic character. Awkward and panicky when dealing with her surroundings, she keeps herself remarkably contained in her own head, and as Kansas, Paris, Moscow, Seoul, and other cities whirl around her, Pip's focus remains consistently pointed inward. Although growing as an athlete, Pip seems stuck at sixteen, and when she unwillingly retires with no Dara Torres-like comeback in sight she finds herself without anything to fall back on.

As Pip falls apart, the narrative does too, which leads to an unsatisfying but probably more realistic ending than any other. Keegan's prose is often hilarious and watching Pip try to navigate the far choppier waters of her family and adolescence are often squirm-inducingly painful, and her despair as her career ends is palpable.

And to the reviewer who was disappointed because they were hoping for a fictional rehash of Michael Phelps' No Limits, do not pass go or collect $200.

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