The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic

The First Rule of Swimming

I admit I was attracted by the cover of this book, without knowing too much about it. It’s just such a beautiful image, but also just a bit suggestive of Millais’ Death of Ophelia.

Ophelia
Image from Tate

So, seeing as how that is one of my favourite paintings, in all it’s tragic glory, I had to find out more about the book. The story is, at it’s heart, about two sisters. Growing up on a tiny and remote Croatian island with their grandparents has made Magdalena and Jadranka very close. They are totally different characters however. Magdalena is serious, reserved, cautious. Jadranka is creative, a little wild even. Inseparable as children, as adults they live very different lives. Their bond is unbreakable despite this, or so it seems, until Jadranka travels to America to stay with their cousin Katarina. She seems happy but something causes her to disappear, even from Magdalena. The search for Jadranka allows us to explore the family’s difficult past, to understand each individual member and their reasons for acting as they do.

It is a moving story that touches on the difficulties of living under a Communist regime and in a country at war. Although the tiny island of Rosmarina escapes the worst of the fighting, the wider ramifications are unavoidable. Conscription, denouncements, blockades and hurried escapes are intertwined with the traditions and gossip of a close-knit isolated community. Such a small community has its benefits and drawbacks; it can be a source of comfort and strength but everyone also always knows everyone else’s business. The island surveillance is more benign than the state-sponsored kind, and the novel opens with a vignette from the early 1980s. Magdalena receives a letter from her cousin in America containing nothing more than a child’s desire for a penpal. Still the letter has been opened and read by unknown censors. Magdalena’s grandfather resorts to subterfuge to try to find out the fate of his son who fled with Katarina and her parents. Marin’s whereabouts are unknown to anyone, he has been missing from his family for years.
Jadranka cannot be allowed to vanish too. Her reasons are different, but the connections between her and her missing uncle unfold gradually. The family is held together and pushed apart by the suffering each has endured. Petty jealousies amongst cousins are magnified by the physical distance between them. For the older generation, the memories of bad old days return to haunt them. In the middle are a brother and sister whose bond was ripped apart. Marin and Ana’s forced separation has damaged them both, but Ana has been unable to find the goodness in the life she was left. Also widowed very young she abandons Magdalena and Jadranka with her parents, to live on the mainland, rejecting the island completely. The worst damage is done when she insists they stay with her and her abusive boyfriend. His treatment of Magdalena is unforgivable, Ana’s refusal to apologise or even sympathise with her daughter is hard to forgive.
Ana is the least sympathetic member of the family, and I wondered about this. She is a ‘bad mother’, most of all for her lack of empathy, but she too has battle scars. I couldn’t bring myself to like her, but I did hope she could find some sort of peace with her life. I felt emotionally involved with all the family, and wanted them all to reconnect with each other, to leave some of the terrible stuff behind. The book captured me very quickly, and I wanted to keep reading. The descriptions of the island are beautiful, and the writing did lift me away from some of the sadness – I mean that in a positive way. I enjoyed the story very much, it’s pace was good and it revealed just enough at a time, building towards a surprisingly tense ending. I’m very glad that cover caught my eye.
The First Rule of Swimming is published today in the USA, and on 27th June in the UK. Thank you very much to the publisher Little, Brown for allowing me to read an eARC via Netgalley.

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