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Pickle Me This

August 23, 2009

Swimming by Nicola Keegan

Swimming begins, “I’m a problematic infant, but everything seems okay to me.” Narrator Philomena, draped in rolls of baby fat, goes on, “I live simply; when something doesn’t seem okay, I scream until it is again… I am nine months old and the longest I’ve slept at one time is one hour and forty three minutes.” Poised on the edge of the pool before her first aqua babies class, she is slipped into the water and finds herself “liberated from my fleshly prison of gravity.” Philomena swims and she swims, kicking and rolling, amazing all those poolside, and when pulled from the water, she spits up, pees on her father, and then falls asleep for fourteen hours.

Her parents keep checking on her after: “It is an unspoken fact that they can finally love me now that I’m out cold. They bask in this love, as waves of breath ebb and flow, causing the dome of my stomach to stink, then swell. The silence of the household has opened a space for hope.”

I elaborate this first chapter in such detail in order to explain that Swimming isn’t what it sounds like. The journey of a girl from a small Kansas town swimming to Olympic stardom, an American-type story. Interestingly, however, Keegan turns out not to be American at all, and it shows in her writing. Her narrative reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, both books dark and hilarious in turns, eccentric family histories beginning with the narrator’s birth, except in the case of Philomena, this birth actually takes place that moment she first gets in the pool.

Only in this first chapter, however, do we get a sense of Philomena in the pool– how it feels to kick, to float, to duck underwater. Though swimming remains her passion throughout her life, “passion” isn’t the right word exactly, because swimming is more a means to an end, which is survival. Sink or swim? She chooses the latter, so that instead of swimming as the main exploration of the narrative, the sport is a metaphor for how Philomena lives her life. Tracing it back it to its very origins, she says, we all start out swimming anyway.

Despite her aptitude for all things aquatic, Philomena receives little encouragement from her parents regarding swimming. Once again, this won’t be the expected tale– of prodigies worked to the bone, of childhood lost. Her preparation for her olympic career isn’t years and years of practice and determination, but rather an eccentric family to start with, compounded by tragedy. In her mid-teens, Philomena starts swimming to save herself from nothingness, to avert her mind from traumatic memories, and her natural ability is still apparent. So that she catches up fast and she begins to win. Winning itself the object, the race, ripping through the water instead of focusing on what’s around her. She becomes the omniscient narrator of her own life, with all the distance that might imply, and her friends and family she renders brutal caricatures, because this is how life is bearable.

Swimming is Keegan’s first novel, which is obvious at times. Not that the book reads like a novice effort, but instead it’s clear that Keegan has poured into Swimming absolutely everything she’s got. The shape of the book is not quite perfect, but its substance is something remarkable. So that I hope that Keegan has not exhausted her store, and I look forward to seeing where her talent takes her.

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