The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
The village of Orford, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk is not used to foreigners. Someone’s killing animals by slitting their throats, and everyone is concerned about terrorists in their midst.
Ria, a poet, lives in relative isolation in her late uncle’s cottage by the coast in Suffolk – it’s home. Eric, a neighbouring farmer, is like a surrogate father to her, having taken her eel-fishing since she was a child. Now single, she enjoys being on her own with with few distractions apart from her bothersome brother and his family arriving for an annual trip. Jack is always on at her to sell the house, so he can have his half, but Ria won’t – they’ve feuded over this for years. Then one day she sees the swimmer…
I was just about to reach out for the switch of my table lamp when I saw him. My swimmer! He was much earlier than before, moving slowly across the surface of the water. I stood open-mouthed and astonished. Then I turned silently and let myself out of the kitchen door, rounding the corner of the house before I stopped. The swimmer had reached the bank and was clambering up it. He had his back to me as once again he began to dry himself with his shirt. I stood waiting. Under the darkening summer sky I could see that he was not a local boy. I watched as he shook his dark curly hair and water sprayed out. He had been swimming in his trousers again and now he reached for the shoes he had thrown down in the long grass. He was putting them on when something made him turn slightly. Then slowly he moved his head and saw me. For a while minute we stared at each other without speaking. Both of us shocked. He was the first to break the silence, surprising me by holding up his hand, one foot in a shoe. He looked ready to run.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, in perfect, though accented, English. ‘I’m very sorry. Please. I won’t do it again.’
Ben is an illegal immigrant – a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the area via Moscow. He’s living and working on a nearby farm while his application for asylum is being processed. Ben is a medic who plays jazz piano and despite an eighteen year difference in their ages, they fall for each other and begin tentative steps towards a relationship – then tragedy happens. I won’t tell you any more of the story, but as the book moves on we meet other women in Ben’s life including his mother Anula, and they take on the tale.
With her artist’s eye, Roma has conjured up a compelling vision of the landscape once again. In her previous book, Brixton Beach, the Sri Lankan coast came to life, and the same is so here for the rivers, marshes and pebbly beaches of Suffolk – she has a great affinity to seascapes. The characters are strongly drawn too, but none more so than Eric – who is a rock. He understands; he has his own sadness, but uses it to help others, and he provides continuity throughout the book.
This is a sad book, yet there is hope too. I enjoyed it immensely, and in my hour of need would wish to have someone like Eric to be there for me. The story highlights the frustrations and distrust experienced by illegal immigrants who have had to flee their own country, definitely something to make one think. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Ben and other asylum-seekers arriving hidden in a lorry. But he had to escape Jaffna or risk being rounded up and shot in the still ongoing war in his home country. Somehow though, you sense that this dramatic move has set him free to find a new home – which is another theme weaving through this book.
This was an super read and I can highly recommend it. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – Thank you
Roma Tearne, The Swimmer (William Collins, 2010) paperback, 400 pages.