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Swimming by Nicola Keegan

picture of book cover

Full disclosure: I picked up Swimming because I do, in fact, love swimming. To me, it has always been one of the most enjoyable activities, a way to fly and to move, a place where having broad shoulders is actually helpful.

As a child, I never considered it to be a "real" sport (probably because it's only taken seriously every few years when a Janet Evans or a Michael Phelps does their thing), but I did like those medals from local swim meets. I am constantly amazed when I meet people who either don't know or don't like to swim.

Luckily, even for those who were not water babies, Swimming is a powerful look at family, grief and how one survives. Philomena Ash, the middle of four girls, is always a gifted swimmer, but living a relatively normal life in Kansas flanked by nuns. As tragedies hit the Ash family, the tall and unwieldly Philomena finds escape in swimming and ascends to the top of the Olympic pool, so to speak, cheered on by the ghosts of dead relatives. Since the novel is told entirely through Philomena's eyes - even the quotes are in Italics, and thoughts are reflected through peoples' eyes - you are always on her side, especially when dealing with her agoraphobic mother who is a direct descendent of Charlotte in The Little Friend.

It would have been easy for Keegan to make her debut your standard triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, with the Olympic medal podium as the pinnacle of Phil's life. Keegan's writing is clear and often quite funny when Phil is describing her thoughts about, for example, her coach. "Olympic drama is starting to excavate sleeping Catholic ceremonial practices planted in my mind long before I could think, and I now have to fight the urge to bow or genuflect with the Mankovitz speaks. He looks at me and nods and I have to restrain myself in order not to genulfect or cross myself in response," she writes. But after Phil's athletic career is over, Keegan allows her the last chunk of the novel to figure out where her life is headed. Phil's epiphany - that feelings don't actually kill - seems simple, but is quite powerful. 

This would be a great choice for a book club, and I suspect that most people who enjoy good writing with strong female heroines, from Speak: 10th Anniversary Edition to Little Bee: A Novel would enjoy it. And for younger readers who like female swimming protagonists, I remember loving In Lane Three, Alex Archer , which is about a teenage swimmer who dreams of the Olympics. I plan on seeing if I can hunt it down, as it's now out of print. 

Any other books about female swimmers that you would recommend?