Feb 27 2021

The Swimmers by Marian Womack

It’s kind of hilarious how the back cover of this volume calls it a reimagining of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea even as Marian Womack’s afterword candidly discusses how she doesn’t want to compare The Swimmers to what was for her a seminal text. And I can see for both arguments: the comparison is a huge hook in getting readers to pick this up, but the story itself, while having many parallels to that reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is really quite different from both novels.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t spend the first few chapters trying to get the two plots to sync together better in my brain. Pearl is a young surface-dweller who lives with her loving, if distant, mother and ill younger brother on a rambling estate almost wholly given over to the encroaching wilderness. Her memories of her father are fragmented and unreliable, but she knows scandal followed his death by suicide in a military base. Growing up nearly feral, socializing mostly with those of the beanie and shuvani classes considered lower in status than her own, she’s in for a surprise when her mother suddenly remarries.

Anton VanLow is kind but also obviously in need of Urania’s fortune. He moves their family to Old Town while he remodels the estate, gradually introducing them to modern civilization as he wheels and deals with their fellow techie caste members and the higher-status ringers who live in orbit over earth. Tragedy strikes when they move back to the estate, tearing their family apart and causing Pearl to eventually seek refuge in an Academy that trains her for work in the Ring, or so she hopes.

Years later, a ringer named Arlo comes down to Old Town to marry the stepdaughter of an industrialist his father means to court. Arlo is attracted to Pearl but doesn’t understand her life or her world, and she will soon leave him in an attempt to make sense of her place on this planet… or above it, no matter the consequence to her or to the baby she reluctantly carries.

Set in a far future where humanity’s haves live in a pristine off-world while the have-nots struggle against the wild and ever-changing wreckage of a planet Earth that is coming back with a vengeance after centuries of ill use, this is a fascinating study both of ecology and sociology, and how myths and stories grow to make history more palatable to the average person. It’s an excellent fast-forwarding of the class and feminism issues highlighted in WSS to apply to an imagined future in the aftermath of eco-disaster and social stratification via futuristic technology. Perhaps most surprisingly, The Swimmers is also a critique of collection vs curation. What is the point, Pearl wonders, of gathering data without providing context and making value judgments of worth and posterity? It’s also a brutally honest rendition of a woman who hates being pregnant but will do anything for her child once born — sentiments I have a strong sympathy for.

As with her debut novel The Golden Key, Dr Womack does a tremendous job of establishing the atmosphere and otherworldly settings our protagonists encounter and often struggle through. The ideas are lively and the individual scenes often indelible for their imagery and evocation of feeling. I do continue to wish that certain parts were more developed tho. How did the Ring trap the pregnant Pearl? What’s up with the visual manifestation of the storytellers’ art? Why not do more than coyly allude to how Pearl’s father mistreated her mother? And what was Verity’s actual cause of death?!

I did enjoy The Swimmers more than TGK (which I’m still hoping for a sequel to!) because it felt less vague around the periphery despite being a book that lends itself to a kind of dreaminess where details may more quickly slip into irrelevancy. Obviously, I still had my questions, but overall it felt a more satisfying read, likely because it’s more topical than TGK, allowing Dr Womack to focus with wry precision on a wider number of issues that deserve mulling over in our day and age. I do hesitate in calling this a dystopia when the society here is so obviously patterned on an actual historical era, in this case, life in early 1800s colonial Jamaica. Undesirable and unjust, for sure, but so far within the realm of possibility as to have actually happened, and hooking the literary term “dystopia” to it, while technically correct, feels like an attempt to make it seem like bad societies were a fiction or an anomaly instead of a horrifying reality for far too many people.

Finally, would like to note how gorgeous that cover is, and perfectly evocative of the novel’s post-eco-disaster setting, even if none of the swimmers in the book actually come into contact with underwater Venus flytraps large enough to kill a person. That we know of, anyway.

The Swimmers by Marian Womack was published February 23, 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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