The Swimmers is the latest novel from Marian Womack, and much like her previous book, The Golden Key, it has a strange, dreamlike quality that makes reading it a unique experience.
The narrative follows Pearl, a young woman who’s grown up in a world of the far future, where the earth has been completely altered by climate change and out of control terra-forming, creating a place that’s almost unrecognisable for readers.
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Following global warming the world has been transformed, covered in a vast, always changing jungle, filled with mutant animals. There are three groups of people surviving in this future: those who get to live high above the Earth in the huge ring that surrounds the planet; the Techies, old families who were once responsible for the construction and upkeep of the large barriers that keep out the deadly seas, but have to live on the surface; and the Beanies, a recently freed group of people that were once slave and servants, working in the Techie homes and growing food in the jungles.
Pearl is a Techie, and has grown up in a remote estate in the jungles, but after her father leaves her life after apparently killing a child, Pearl’s childhood takes a turn she didn’t expect. Eventually her mother remarries, and the family get to move to one of the last towns left, where she begins to learn more about the world around her, and starts to uncover some secrets about her family and their past.
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I mentioned at the start that The Swimmers has something of a dream-like quality to it, and this is mainly due to the fact that the narrative is told from Pearl’s point of view, and that the book is written less like someone experiencing a series of events and recounting them to the reader, and more like someone looking back on their life. The narrative comes across more like a flow of consciousness than a more thought out telling of a story.
Pearl hasn’t rehearsed what she’s telling people, she isn’t writing it down in an easy to understand way, editing what’s there until it’s clear and easy to follow. Instead it will jump from point to point, with the timeframe of events moving around. She’ll start talking about one thing, but it seems to remind her of something else, so she switches her focus and talks about that for a bit, before going back to her original point. Because of this the book can at times feel pretty disjointed, and even hard to follow, however, it gets readers deeper into her mind than a normal first person perspective would normally manage.
The strangeness of the writing style, and of Pearl’s thoughts, are magnified in sections where another voice takes over, and we get parts written from another point of view. These segments feel more like a traditional first person perspective, and are closer to what most people would probably be used to experiencing. These segments help to give further context to Pearl’s story, showing events from different vantage points, and allowing deeper understanding of what’s going on, things that Pearl couldn’t possibly know. They also help to explain the conclusion of the book, something that if we were just following Pearl’s story alone would take a very sudden turn and conclude almost out of nowhere; yet together these two narrative types seem to work, and craft a mostly complete and satisfying narrative.
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I say mostly, because there was so much about this world that I wanted to learn more about, yet readers were never really given that opportunity. Over the course of the book we learn a little about how the world ended up this way, but it feels like this was just the tip of the iceberg for the most part. We never really went deep into how things got to this point, who was responsible for the dramatic changes to the planet and its wildlife. We got tiny glimpses into the creatures that now inhabit the jungles and vast, plastic filled oceans, but only occasionally when an animal we’ve never seen or heard of before is mentioned in Pearl’s story. I really wanted Womack to go into this in more detail, to really show the weirdness and horror of this new Earth, yet it never happened.
I’d recommend The Swimmers to people who want to read a strange and multilayered story, one that will get you thinking and filling in the gaps, but if you’re not a fan of complex weaving narratives and opaque storytelling it might leave you wishing for something a little easier to digest.
The Swimmers is out now from Titan Books.