THE SWIMMERS by Marian Womack (BOOK REVIEW)
“I have since understood how storytelling works, what it does with your senses. It was as if they somehow became entangled. The meaning of the story presents itself, sensation on top of sensation, all of them building together to create one woven pattern, one in which no one element is primary, the story a single perfect whole made of fragments and patches, moments of understanding, smells, visions.”
Marian Womack’s debut English novel The Golden Key (2020) was one of my literary highlights of 2020, a mesmerising work of climate change gothic fairy tale. Womack’s new novel, The Swimmers (2021), builds on the distinctive use of the Weird to explore the unease, alienation and horror of living in the Anthropocene that Womack displayed in her excellent short story collection Lost Objects (2018). The Swimmers imagines how our future transfigured by climate change and humanity’s woeful treatment of the environment might look and feel. It is a powerful call to action to fight against humanity’s mistreatment of the environment, and the arrogance that says we can find a technological solution to it. It’s a thoughtful exploration of how the burden of living in a climate change future will fall disproportionately on the poor and on women, while those in power use their money and influence to escape the consequences of their actions. And it is a tribute to the power of storytelling, that perhaps our ability to confront and accept difficult truths through the medium of narrative will provide us with a tool for surviving the struggles ahead of us. While it may be foolhardy of me to declare the best book of 2021 in February, if The Swimmers doesn’t at least make the Clarke’s shortlist this year in my humble opinion Womack will have been robbed.
The Swimmers is set in the future after the Green Winter has transformed the Earth. The privileged live in the Upper Settlement rings safe in orbit, whilst the less fortunate remain surface dwellers on a strangely transfigured Earth. The surface dwellers are stratified into classes, the techies, their servants the beanies, and the outsider shuvanies. The novel focuses on Pearl, a young girl who lives in the forests of Gobari, surrounded by the ever-encroaching jungle with its carnivorous plants and the monstrous mutated descendants of our present-day animals. Pearl’s glamourous, beautiful techie mother is a swimmer, a cult made up of people furious at the damage wrought on the Earth by humanity who dream of one day breaking through the barrier that protects the beaches from the plastic-choked Three Oceans and drowning in the sea, and has shuvani blood. Her father is arrested for the kidnap and murder of a beanie girl, Pearl’s childhood friend, bringing disgrace to the family. Her stepfather is a ringer who arranges for Pearl to marry Arlo, a starborn man with a passionate interest in anthropology. Pearl learns to navigate her world through the confluences of privilege and disenfranchisement that circumscribe her place in society, as she moves to the Old Town to work in the Repository, falls in love with Arlo and becomes pregnant with his child, and is taken up to the ring to give birth. Arlo, meanwhile, learns that his studies have not prepared him for the reality of life on the surface, nor the challenges of his eventual fate.
In the acknowledgements, Womack talks about the influence of two books on The Swimmers, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014) and Jean Rhys’ Wild Sargasso Sea (1966). These two reference points will give you some idea of The Swimmers’ literary ambition and wild inventiveness, but Womack’s creation is very much her own. The world in The Swimmers is one transfigured by both climate change and humanity’s misguided attempts to use terraforming and biotechnology to fix the mess they’d made. As with her short stories, Womack’s engagement with the Weird is directly connected to her exploration of humanity’s mistreatment of the environment. Here we get a claustrophobic, feverishly intense world in which hares are the size of horses, and the plants have become predatory. Nature has responded to humanity’s monstrous treatment of it by becoming monstrous:
“The hares she feared so much were huge creatures, covered with yellow stripes as a kind of war paint; thankfully, they had only lasted one summer, and disappeared as silently as they emerged. Or those wild horses that ate human beings; and all the birds, of course, huge and hairy and beautiful, that they now called abominations, unnatural; as if we had not done that to nature ourselves, as if she had chosen an uncanny path to spite us.”
But Womack is equally interested in the social repercussions of the Anthropocene. The world in The Swimmers is one where the protagonist’s intersections of identity across class, gender and race determine the life choices available to her. Because of her ringer stepfather and techie mother, Pearl is able to study at the Registry, where she gets to learn about the past by cataloguing the extensive archives from before the Green Winter. While her options are restricted by her father’s disgrace and her mother’s shuvani blood, she is granted a wider circle of movement and agency than the beanies, and is shielded from the results of some of her actions. It is only by confronting the truth about herself, and discovering the truth about her identity, that she is able to break the destructive cycle of her life and have a positive impact on Arlo, their daughter and the world around them. Similarly, Arlo must learn to confront his own privilege as a ringer and everything that his identity protects him from before he can help bring about the world’s salvation.
The Swimmers is a beautiful, sad and wise book. Womack’s prose remains as luminous as ever, her character work deft and convincing, her worldbuilding intricate and challenging. It is a reflection on the importance of being able to recognise and tell one’s own truth. It teaches us the lesson that in order to save the world from humanity’s destructive impulses, the answers will not be found by recapitulating the past, surrendering our agency to technology or hoping for an escape but by confronting the inequalities that got us here in the first place with honesty and openness so that we may build something new. As such it is a timely and necessary book, and a powerful demonstration of how speculative fiction is best suited to help us confront issues as all-encompassing and complex as climate change.