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February 10, 2013

Flip Turn by Paula Eisenstein

flip-turnFlip Turn, the debut novel by Paula Eisenstein, is a wonderful companion to Leanne Shapton’s memoir Swimming Studies, using fiction to address many of the questions Shapton posed in her book. What does it it mean to be defined in one’s youth by a competitive sport? How can you be yourself without the sport? Does having natural talent hinder one from trying anything that doesn’t come easy? And where does the discipline of competitive athletics come from? Where does it go when the sport is gone? Eisenstein too delves into the peculiar culture of competitive swimming, the smell of chlorine, greeny blond hair, how you should not in fact stow your wet suit in a plastic bag after morning practice but rather roll it in your towel, otherwise it will still be wet for practice later in the later and therefore impossible to put on.

For Eisenstein’s unnamed narrator, competitive swimming offers welcome escape from a horrifying incident in her family’s past. Her older brother had been convicted of murdering a young girl at the local YMCA in their hometown of London ON, and the family cannot help being defined by that event both among themselves and in the wider community. The protagonist of Flip Turn views her swimming successes as a chance to tell a different story about their family life, to change the narrative. If she is good, then her family is good, she figures, which is a heavy burden for a young girl to carry on her shoulders no matter how muscular those shoulders are.

In the pool is the one place where she belongs, where both her mind and her body know exactly what she needs to do in order to be successful. Whereas, at school and even among her teammates, she’s not comfortable in her skin, always feeling like an outsider, partly due to her brother’s infamy or at least her consciousness of it, and also due to the fact that to be teenaged is always to feel like something of a misfit. Home is no better–she is all too aware of the fractures in her family, tip-toeing around her parents in order to be everything her brother wasn’t. Though she has to be careful not to be too successful in her sport–every time her name appears in the local newspaper, she knows that with her surname she only serves as a reminder of the terrible thing her brother had done years before.

Eisenstein’s narrative is told in fragments, which is disconcerting at first but the reader becomes accustomed to the style. This fragmented approach makes sense as well because this character’s world is one that is very much broken, and also because any young person is only figuring out how to understand a world in pieces anyway. Flip Turn has no obvious narrative arc–the trajectory is less of an arc than lengths back and forth across a pool–except that as the story progresses, the narrator’s voice and focus changes, deepens, demonstrating that this character is indeed maturing and that her awareness of the world around her is broadening.

This broadened awareness, however, fails to lead our character to any tidy resolution and, if anything, actually makes her experiences more complicated. Which is pretty much how life works, but it also means that this novel’s abrupt ending isn’t going to satisfy everyone. Though I imagine that anyone who gets into Flip Turn isn’t going to approach its ending expecting anything vaguely book-shaped anyway. What we get here is a portrayal of consciousness instead, a singular voice infused with such tenacity that the reader is left suspecting (or perhaps just hoping?) that this is a character who someday really is going to be okay.

2 thoughts on “Flip Turn by Paula Eisenstein”

  1. Carrie says:

    I’m curious, Kerry. Would this book be appropriate for a younger reader?

    1. Kerry says:

      Depends on the reader’s sensibility. But I think yes.

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