'The Swimmer' by Roma Tearne has been on my mental TBR list since I heard her talk at the literature festival back on 2011 though the listening to has taken a back seat over the last few weeks to all the other stuff. I have to start with a thumbs up to Patience Tomlinson who does an excellent job of the narration in this production, articulating the different characters beautifully.
Spoiler Alert (some disclosure of the plot events.)
Although the story is centred around the killing by mistaken identity of a young illegal immigrant, Ben, and there is quite some discussion about the issue of immigration and the perpetuation of distrust and dislike of immigrants, the book is really focussed on three women. Rea is a middle aged poet living in a house that had belonged to her aunt and uncle, having returned there after the breakup of a long term relationship. We are given her background story of the loss of her beloved father and the neglect of her mother. In her adult life she has a strong bond of friendship with Eric, an older neighbour, but is politely tolerant of her bigoted and arrogant brother. Into her very quiet life comes Ben, a qualified doctor who has escaped the violent regime and war in his homeland of Sri Lanka and is trying to stay out of trouble while he waits for the immigration people to grant him permission to stay. The first third of the book follows their gradually developing friendship that turns unexpectedly into a love affair and sweeps away all the preconceptions Rea has about herself. Just as she is beginning to think he will be part of her life Ben is snatched away when he is shot by police, having been mistaken for a terrorist, a group of whom are coincidentally holed up in a neighbouring house. The second part shifts narrator and we meet Anula, Ben's mother, who arrives from Sri Lanka for his funeral. She relates her tale while on a coach journey back to the airport and it shifts in time, telling of her life back home and then segments of her time in England and then back to her feelings as she is leaving. Both women keep up a front of stoicism, neither allowing the other to share what they feel is a private grief; I kept expecting them to break down and bond over their love for Ben but it never happens. At the same time Anula allows herself to be swept up by the caring tenderness of Eric, an experience that both shocks and delights her in the face of her grief. The third part introduces Lydia, Rea's daughter, a young teenager trying to come to terms with the loss of her mother and her sense of lack of identity. With Eric's help the story and the women are drawn back together to find some kind of solace and resolution. (Her existence did not come as a shock to me as the lingering reference at the beginning to Rea's childlessness and then her feeling unwell seemed obvious clues to where the story was headed.)
The whole story is about the different ways that people grieve; all the characters have lost someone, mostly in traumatic ways. It is about how people isolate themselves, or how grief isolates you. It is quite an emotionally charged story, lurching between love and death. Roma Tearne's homeland is obviously very important to her and she gets across the damage that the political strife has inflicted on the people, the sense of uncertainty and vulnerability that is experienced when a regime tries to suppress a population. It is contrasted quite starkly with the quiet unruffled life of rural East Anglia. The two women's reactions to the encounter with the lawyer is very telling; Rea is determined that the police will be called to account for their actions, Anula is resigned to the absolute power of anonymous authorities and wants only to be left with her private experience of having lost her son. Although the story opens with some animal murders that were designed to implicate the immigrant community (perpetrated it turns out by right wing extremists) I felt that the politics of the situation was very secondary to the human story. All the characters are well drawn, complex and sympathetic in their own ways, particularly Eric who takes on this wonderful, sightly counter-intuitive nurturing role for the three women. There is also the lovely contrast of atmosphere, from the summer of Rea and Ben's blossoming relationship to the depths of winter for the funeral; there are lots of wonderful descriptions of the countryside and seascapes. This is a lovely intense story, quite dark and serious; in some ways the anger expressed by Lydia in the final few chapters is almost refreshing after so much suppressed sorrow. Certainly a very emotional read (or listen in my case), highly recommended.