Allen & Unwin
Copy courtesy of the publisher
It’s 1925 and after an idyllic childhood growing up in the Torres Strait Islands, learning to swim in the clear warm waters, Catherine finds herself an orphan and living with her aunt in England. She’s miserable, trapped in a school where she doesn’t fit in, where she hasn’t been raised the same way as the other girls. She can’t swim, something she has lived for as long as she can remember. Her aunt Louisa is a busy doctor and she holds views on the way Catherine needs to behave now. The time for running wild on the island is over – she needs to grow up into a well rounded young woman who now has the opportunity to do anything, to be anything.
A chance meeting with rich American Manfred Lear Black gives Catherine the opportunity she so desperately craves – the chance to swim. He convinces Catherine to come to New York and go up against some of America’s best female swimmers. He’s convinced that she could be the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel and he’s willing to provide the financial backing for her attempt. But is it simply an innocent interest in finding a champion or does he have deeper motives?
Swimming Home is the latest novel from bestselling author Mary-Rose MacColl and it gives the reader three very different settings – an island in the Torres Strait off the coast of the northern tip of Australia, London and then New York. Catherine grew up the daughter of a doctor who worked on a remote island in the Torres Strait. She learned to swim in the open water at an incredibly young age and it’s something that shapes her entire life, as are her relationships with her father’s native housekeeper, who has cared for Catherine since the death of her mother when she was a toddler, as well as the housekeeper’s son Michael. On the island, the relationships are different, although the native Torres Straight Islanders do not escape having their children taken to be ‘fostered out’ among white families in order to see them raised properly and put to work.
When Catherine is 14, her father dies leaving her an orphan. He makes his sister, Catherine’s Aunt Louisa her guardian, someone Catherine has only seen once when she was a young child. Unmarried, Louisa is a busy surgeon, not at all sure of how to raise a teenage girl. Still she does her family duty and travels to the islands to bring Catherine back to England, seemingly unaware just how reluctant Catherine is to leave her home and move somewhere so utterly removed from everything she has ever known. To be honest I thought Louisa, although clueless about adolescents, did show quite a bit of shortsightedness here, thinking that enrolling Catherine in good school where she would be very unlikely to fit in, especially immediately would be the answer to Catherine’s development. I understand where she was coming from and her thoughts on how to raise Catherine, a girl who had been left to really kind of go wild, from an English point of view. But she really seems very oblivious to the fact that the girl has had so much change in her life and she’s miserable. She’s had the things and people she loves most taken from her and she’s moved to a place that’s the virtual opposite of everything she’s ever known. Louisa is very busy and she has trouble actually sitting down and talking to Catherine, as Catherine’s presence stirs up memories for her. It’s Louisa’s housekeeper Nellie who understands how lonely and out of place Catherine feels. When Catherine swims the Thames, she is asked to leave her exclusive school but it also in its own way, is the catalyst for the presentation of opportunity.
I really enjoyed reading about Catherine as a character – her unusual upbringing, her difficulty in fitting in once she moved to England and her devotion to swimming. For Catherine it wasn’t just a past time, it was a necessity. Something she required for her mental well being, it was almost as much a part of her life as breathing. And not just swimming, but the sort of open water swimming she had grown up with. Training in a tank in New York, attempting to adapt her stroke to what her coach wanted, wasn’t enough to satisfy the craving in her to just get out on the water and swim. I loved the part of the book devoted to swimming and the move towards the first woman being able to swim the English Channel. As someone who cannot really swim (bit embarrassing, being an Australian!), the idea of swimming such a distance is mind-boggling. The fatigue, the cold, the sheer length of time it takes – it’s amazing that someone of Catherine’s age with pretty much no formal training, could be considered for such a feat.
There are a few mysteries and twists in this book which are really interesting. So interesting in fact that I’d have loved to read more about the time before Catherine was born. The upbringing of Louisa and her medical studies and what happened to her would’ve been good to read about in greater detail, as well as Catherine’s parents’ marriage. There could’ve been a deeper delving into the island life of the early 1900’s, especially what it was like when her parents first arrived there. I really could’ve read a lot more in this setting.
Swimming Home is a beautifully written story of a girl who just wants the freedom to go home, to be with the people she loves and do what she loves. I did really like the way in which the relationship between Louisa and Catherine evolved, even though they did spent quite a bit of time apart. Louisa makes some difficult choices sometimes, you can see where she’s coming from and why she might do it but you can also see that it’s going to make things even more difficult between her and Catherine and from those different places they have to come together and reach an understanding, air the secrets between them in order to move forward. The believability and well-roundness of the characters are definitely a strong point and it’s the sort of book that makes you feel as if you know the people involved. I only wish there’d been more.
Book #146 of 2015
Swimming Home is book #58 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015