Monday, April 20, 2015

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (2010)

A random library find by an author I had never heard of before.  Roma Tearne is originally from Sri Lanka, but fled the country when she was a child and now lives in the UK.  She has published five novels, and "The Swimmer", her fourth, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

The originality of this novel took me by surprise.  The story starts with Ria, a middle-aged single poet who lives a secluded life in an old house she inherited from her uncle.  One night she sees someone swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden, and she begins to suspect that the swimmer is also sneaking into her house, stealing food.  She discovers that he is a young illegal refugee from Sri Lanka, Ben, and they strike up a tentative friendship that soon progresses into an unlikely romance.

A tragic turn in the story shifts the book's focus from Ria to another character, Anula, Ben's mother, who must come to England, and is confronted with being in a completely foreign environment and how this deeply affects her, and her life when she finally returns to Sri Lanka.

Finally, the third part of the book is told from the perspective of Lydia, Ria's daughter, through whom we learn of more tragedy that played out in these characters' lives.  Much of this novel is dark and very heavy, especially given the author's exploration of what it means to be an illegal immigrant in the UK, what is was like to live in Sri Lanka as a Tamil,  and extremist political hatred that are secondary themes of the book.  However, the ending leaves a small opening for a bit of hope, which is gripping after all the hard times Tearne put her characters through.

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