Life Underwater

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The heroine of Nicola Keegan’s debut novel is an Olympic athlete who tries to swim against the current of her tragic family life.

“We all start out swimming. It’s a natural, urgent human sort of state,” says Pip, the central character in Nicola Keegan’s striking debut novel, Swimming. This is not long after Pip has swum a brutal Olympic race, lunging into the water with such force that she breaks two fingers “in a snap like table crackers.”

Swimming is a rich exploration of Pip’s exterior accomplishment and deep interior life; Keegan’s voice as a vehicle for this journey is uncompromising, exultant, full of sorrow, and hilarious. The novel’s first-person, present-tense point of view gives the story of Pip’s life an urgent, grab-you-by-the-collar feeling, which works particularly well in support of Keegan’s lush, languid, visual prose.

We first meet Pip (born Philomena Ash) as a nine month old who amazes her father and her swimming teacher with her mighty aqua-baby feats. By junior high she will be six feet tall with flipper-like feet, eager to escape Kansas and swim competitively. Between those two events, numerous tragedies befall her family: her sister becomes ill with Hodgkin’s disease, a sudden accident claims her father, and her mother grows increasingly agoraphobic, sustaining herself on a liquid concoction referred to as “grimlock.” Indeed, Pip’s entire family—another sister is a drug addict—seems barred from any kind of sustained joy.

Yet the depth and weight of the sadness which pours into Pip’s life is frequently counterbalanced by Keegan’s sharp, darkly comic observations:

The only other dead person I know is Kent the dead sledder. He’d run his sled out into the street on a busy Saturday. He had red hair and sloping teeth… At first he was poor eleven-year-old Kent, then he was Kent the dead boy, then he was Kent the dead sledder, then he was the dead sledding kid, then his parents moved and he was the boy who didn’t listen until they built a fence that protected the hills from the highway and he disappeared into the air forever like a shiny bubble that had been popped.

Pip is superior, strong-willed and does not suffer fools gladly. At one point she says, “I don’t like breathing, so I don’t.” She frequently feels isolated and many of her descriptions of people are as if observed from underwater, which affords them a lovely, distant, unusual clarity.

Keegan frequently employs lists, and she writes them well and with particularity:

All my life, I will kick things that find their way into my path: shoes, baskets, toilet paper rolls, money, rocks, tennis balls, rolled up socks, gym bags… any kind of circular fruit.

As Swimming progresses, these lists can occasionally slow its forward momentum. And while the first-person narration provides compelling access to Pip’s inner world, Keegan occasionally shifts into a kind of first-person omniscience that undercuts suspense. For example, in the first chapter we are told what happens to Pip’s ill sister, and by page 21 we learn the fate of Pip’s swimming ambitions—I would rather have discovered those outcomes in later chapters than read through the novel waiting to arrive at destinations I already knew. Still, weighed against Keegan’s unique voice and vision, these are minor concerns.

Pip calls swimming “a dedicated train,” and her regimen is brutal: “The ache is proof of an efficient swim; the more I ache the faster I become.” There is a glory and beauty in that pain, one that becomes as familiar as breathing to her. In the final quarter of Swimming, Pip is forced to navigate her life in a new way, and the dreamy last chapters string together to explore her inner world in which everything she had to turn from in pursuit of Olympic fame returns to be acknowledged and accounted for.

While Swimming offers an up-close look at the life and training of an Olympic champion, this novel is as much (if not more) about family, trying to find one’s place in the world, and a character who wants something very, very badly—which is the stuff of great fiction. Pip thinks that “life is about curving around corners,” and I found Keegan’s prose to be like that: magical in the way it bends, twists, and surprises.

Mary Otis is the author of the short story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries and is a fiction professor in the Low-Residency MFA Program at UC Riverside. More from this author →