Review of The Swimmers by Marian Womack

A claustrophobic, literary dystopia set in the hot, luscious landscape of Andalusia from the author of The Golden Key.
After the ravages of global warming, this is place of deep jungles, strange animals, and new taxonomies. Social inequality has ravaged society, now divided into surface dwellers and people who live in the Upper Settlement, a ring perched at the edge of the planet’s atmosphere. Within the surface dwellers, further divisions occur: the techies are old families, connected to the engineer tradition, builders of the Barrier, a huge wall that keeps the plastic-polluted Ocean away. They possess a much higher status than the beanies, their servants.
The novel opens after the Delivery Act has decreed all surface humans are ‘equal’. Narrated by Pearl, a young techie with a thread of shuvani blood, she navigates the complex social hierarchies and monstrous, ever-changing landscape. But a radical attack close to home forces her to question what she knew about herself and the world around her.
 

Firstly I want to say a huge thank you to Titan books for the advanced copy of this title. I was excited to see a new book from Marian Womack, her previous book The Golden Key was a book that I loved so I was eager to dive back into her ethereal writing style. Unfortunately this dreamlike quality, which worked so well in a gothic setting, fell short in this story for me.

The premise is strong and a stark take on the future we could find ourselves in, the rich continuing with their opulent lifestyle whilst the poor remain on what’s left of the surface. The world has in many ways started to reclaim itself and the surface feels very colourful even if the local fauna is a much mutated version of how we would see it today. Reusing and recycling is a way of life, but society has also regressed to one full of superstition and stories over fact. The Swimmers is very subversive in this way and for those on the surface, including our protagonist Pearl, their myths have become part of their way of life, the salutary tales a clever means of control. The Woman in White a figure who both gives and takes in a way that feels immensely cruel, yet her stories continue to be told. I enjoyed how some of these stories were peppered throughout the book to really help drive home how close to propaganda some of them were.

Pearl was an interesting protagonist, her story jumps and is mainly in retrospect, I was never clear as to whether she was recollecting or dreaming but I liked how that matched how disorienting her life had become. One of the more fortunate of the surface dwellers she is top of a caste system which sadly still exists and I actually found it quite sad that with all the apparent progress, we still have a society heavily propped up by servitude. Her history is complex and her family full of secrets, her mother being one of the titular Swimmers – which If I’m being brutally honest, I’m still not sure I understand the significance of, especially as the ocean is pretty much a sheet of plastic debris. The introduction of Arlo as a second narrator was much needed and I found his sections in the earlier stages brought a real balance to haphazard recollections of Pearl. His eyes brought a fresh take to what was happening on the surface and I enjoyed his arc very much.

The sad thing for me is that I found The Swimmers to be so confusing. The story went in different directions and threads were left unanswered. The writing just didn’t feel cohesive and I found it such a hard book to motivate myself to come back to. The Swimmers is not a book you can read piecemeal and I think that’s perhaps why I struggled. I wasn’t able to have a really large chunk of time and indeed the last quarter where I had more time, I found that I was, to a degree, able to get into the story. However I still felt like I was missing things and had to flip back to check.

All this being said though, The Swimmers had one of the most deeply satisfying endings I have read for a long time, I had no idea with the dwindling pages how it could be ended but a simple epilogue spoke of so much and painted the picture perfectly. However, for much of the story I felt that the focus was in the wrong place and I wanted to know what was happening elsewhere which was a shame as I think a bit more structure could have made this a book I would have really loved.

3 Stars

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