The Swimmer is a beautifully written novel by Roma Tearne set in the small English town of Orford in Suffolk. It’s the story of Ria, a forty-three-year-old poet, and Ben, a young refugee from Sri Lanka.
Ria is a single woman who lives alone in Eel House, a cottage which once belonged to her uncle. She’s quite happy to be there on her own; if she needs company there’s Eric, an older man from the neighbouring farm, and her brother and his family visit occasionally too – although these visits aren’t entirely welcome. Sometimes, though, life can be lonely for Ria. After a few failed relationships in the past she’s almost given up hope of finding someone to love…until she discovers Ben swimming in the river behind her house.
Ben, a Tamil refugee, left Sri Lanka to escape from the violence there. His asylum application has not yet been processed and so he’s living and working in Britain as an illegal immigrant. Although he’s eighteen years younger than Ria and from an entirely different background, the two begin to fall in love.
I really liked the first section of this book and enjoyed watching Ria and Ben’s relationship slowly develop. I thought the rest of the novel would continue in the same way, but then something happened which I wasn’t prepared for. The plot started to go in another direction, there was a new narrator to get used to, and I felt as if I was reading a completely different book to the one I had been expecting. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; the second part of the book was interesting, moving and relevant and the narrator was a more passionate person than Ria.
The third, and shortest, section of the book also switches narrator and again took me by surprise. Although I found the third narrator difficult to like, I thought seeing things from this person’s point of view helped to pull the story together and set up a perfect ending to the book.
I was impressed by Roma Tearne’s wonderfully descriptive writing and the way she portrayed the hot summer days in Orford and the Suffolk landscape with its marshlands and rivers. I particularly liked the references to the eels in the rivers which migrate from the Sargasso Sea (‘swimmers’, like Ben). But at times there was too much description, too much detail, which made the story move at a very slow pace.
I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book because before I started it I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. I can imagine that if you’ve read a lot of other novels about immigration and refugees you might find this book unoriginal and contrived, but I haven’t read much fiction on this subject so The Swimmer did leave me with a few things to think about.