Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review | Swimming by Nicola Keegan

London 2012 is done and what a show it was. A show of years of endurance, pain and lack of sleep as athletes wake up every day at the crack of dawn while we snuggle under our sheets. In the spirit of the Olympics I went back to a novel that took the world by storm a few years ago. Swimming was Nicola Keegan's brilliant debut novel that had tongues wagging. We haven't heard from her since but the book is still brilliant and is a coming of age story of a little girl who makes her way from the little down of Kansas all the way to Olympics. The obstacles Keegan throws her way are bigger bigger than Phelps's shoulder muscles and her attitude, just as sassy. Meet Philomena, also known as Pip, who was thrown into a pool as an infant and came out swimming like that baby in the Nirvana album cover. She belongs to an eccentric family - a broke bat-loving father, a neurotic mother, a mean older sister- Bron, a stoned sister- Roxanne and a righteous one- Dot.

From the get go, we know the girl is going to win the olympics, we know that her family is going to fall apart. Nicola does not believe in suspense-we know what is going to happen. What we don't know is how Pip will respond to it. Pip is the queen of this novel. Her voice is original, full of angst that springs from being 6 ft 2, flat as a washboard, while her friends push their chest out at ever given opportunity. She finds the Mona Lisa small, oblong, slightly yellowish and relatively humrdum. She speaks in staccato. Her insights into life are sometimes too mature but it doesn't matter. When she says something like, "It is not a good trip although technically I love it. There is no real reason for this love other than the freedom of not existing, the brief suspension of real time, and being able to tug at my underwear right inside my jeans in the metro at high noon without having to worry about a dry maxi pad popping out and exposing me for the liar I am."

Pip has issues but you never stop loving her. You want her to get the gold, get the boy and get the fastest time. You want her to cry when people die.

The action in the pool is where Keegan really shows off. Pip is like a dolphin; the water is her element. You feel every move and like she says, "I kick; it moves me and I feel joy." The story arc is perhaps not original, she does well, she gets cocky, she loses friends. It is in her we rejoice, in her athletic triumph, in her mind numbingly bad luck, in her Lily Cocoplat - who sees everything as a version of a vagina, steel-plated nuns that hover in the air like the boogey man. The sarcasm is never grating because it is never mean. She is a thoughtful girl who has been given the gift of being able to swim like a fish. You realise then when that some people are born to do something, it is a double edged sword that is handed to them at birth. If you are ordinary like some of us, then the ordinary things make you happy. A bad thing because we don't win gold medals, we are content with a good movie, a night out with friends and love.   Exceptionally gifted people do not know anything but what they are gifted at and if you happen to be gifted at swimming, what happens to you when you cannot do it anymore.

It is a timely novel as we watch Phelps, Bolt and the hundreds of gymnasts, rowers, archers do what they do best. But what happens when it stops. The world forgets, the next generation comes in. Some like Agassi manage to create families and be content but others dissolve into obscurity. It is a powerful novel. I wish that it had ended differently. The message that came across is something I would have preferred to ignore - To be the best you have to give it everything and realize you are probably losing everything else in the process. That is the price you pay and what all those athletes mean when they say- "This is for everything I sacrificed. This is my validation." To participate is not enough, you have to win.

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