The Swimmers by Chloe Lane.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 26th October 2022

Gallic Books London: €13.95. Kindle: €6.15.

The Swimmers, by this debut author from New Zealand, takes place over just five days. It’s the Queen’s Birthday Holiday weekend in suburban New Zealand, and Erin is spending the time with her Aunty Wynn, Uncle Cliff, and terminally ill mother.

Her mum has Motor Neurone Disease, and, unable to look after herself is being cared for by her sister. The two were never close; Aunty Wynn, forced to stay on the family farm, has always resented her sister for having the choice to escape to the city.

Aunty Wynn collects her niece from the station, and during the car ride home, warns Erin that her mum has deteriorated. Her quality of life is fast disappearing. She can no longer eat, drink gin and tonic, or go anywhere by herself. She barely has the energy to read. Then comes the shock pronouncement. Her mum has asked Aunty Wynn to help her ‘Exit.’ She’s decided to die three days later – on the following Tuesday.

Her mum believes she can administer the drug herself, but she needs help to procure it. Assisting someone to die is illegal in New Zealand, as in Ireland, but the two, agreeing to help, ask a local vet, Stephen, to prescribe the necessary drugs. He does so, but there’s a farcical tussle at the moment of handover.  

The right to be helped to die is the central issue in this novel, but the narrative theme is the effect on Erin, focusing on her sense of dislocation.  They’re a family of competitive swimmers – most powerful in the water. It’s the one thing the three women have in common; the thing both Erin and her mum admire Aunty Wynn for, but the last time Erin swam in a race she bombed out, badly.  And she hasn’t had a lot of success in anything else since.                          

In short, Erin’s life is a mess. An aspirant art curator, she’s been sacked from her job because her boss’s wife discovered her husband and Erin ‘in the storage room, backed against a rack of paintings, covered in bubble wrap and cardboard, our hands down each other’s pants.’  It’s one of the main things she hasn’t yet told her mum about.

As the weekend gathers pace, and Erin encounters some eccentric neighbours, her secrets mount up. She doesn’t tell anyone about Craig, the stranger she visited on impulse. She doesn’t tell them about the picture she steals from Craig the morning after spending the night in his bed, either. So, when two policemen are discovered on the doorstep, the whole family assume the vet has dobbed them in.

The novel is narrated in Erin’s voice, and it’s clear that she’s going through the trauma of grief in advance of her mother’s death. All her life it’s been just her and her mum, her father having run off long ago, and there are so many things she wants to know, and so little time to learn them in. It doesn’t help that her mother can no longer talk, so these conversations happen, laboriously, with her mum’s slow typing onto an I pad.

The power of this quirky, yet intense and moving novel comes in the contrast between the heightened emotions of all the characters, and the mundaneness of their domestic endeavours. But will Erin be able to find the mental strength to help her mum towards a good end? And if she does, how will she cope with the reality of her deed it all in the months to come?  Erin has choices – just as her mum did before her, but will she make the right ones? Whichever, Erin is a memorable creation who always does the unexpected. And this novel will linger on in the reader’s mind.

Gallic Books London: €13.95. Kindle: €6.15.

Published in the Irish Examiner on 16th July.

©Sue Leonard. 2022.


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