When I began writing The Last Wave, I didn’t set out to create a character who would swim the Channel. In fact, it just seemed natural to me that the wife of the man I saw so clearly at first – standing on a cliff, looking out to sea through the fog – was a swimmer. Once I settled on that idea, the years I’d spent in the water flooded on to the page.
I learned to swim as a child in our neighbourhood pool, staying there until the lifeguards forced me to go home for dinner. I soon found myself immersed in chlorine more days than not, and I still go to the pool at least three times a week.
Swimming and reading have a lot in common: both are solitary pursuits, escapes into different worlds and different kinds of freedom. Some of the swimmers below are chasing bodily liberation in the water; others want to escape their dry-land lives or to recover lost memories. My protagonist Martha is challenging herself to recover her strength.
Testing oneself against the water – in a pool or in the sea – is also a strong dynamic in these books. A few of the characters, at least, understand that the water is not something to be conquered, and that to swim in the sea is to enter into a discussion of sorts with the elements.
What ties the books together is a shared delight in that moment of piercing the water, diving, running, or easing in – that moment of glorious submersion. If you’re not by a beach this week, they all offer something of the joy you’re missing.
1. Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Danny is chasing dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer. When he misses his chance, he seethes with shame. Swimming here is a love-hate affair with the water: when it’s willing to have you, it’s transformational, but when it is against you, it’s devastating.
2. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband about their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in his books. Then she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving everything, including her family, behind. Here the water issues a siren call that she is unable to resist.
3. Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
This is a chronicle of swimming adventure, and to my mind one of the finest. I cannot fathom how Cox has managed to do these swims: more than a mile in the Antarctic; the first person to swim the Straits of Magellan in Chile; the first person to swim around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. She also did her bit to thaw relations between the US and Russia during the cold war by swimming the Bering Strait. Her tales from the sea are as extraordinary as she is.
4. Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
This is a highly original memoir from a Canadian swimmer who made the Olympic trials, but not the Olympic team. She’s also an art editor and graphic novelist, and includes some of her own paintings and photographs of her many swimsuits, which give this book a different texture and flavour. It’s included here in part for personal reasons. She mentions former Canadian Olympian Victor Davis, who I had the good fortune of meeting as a young swimmer: I swam for the same club as he did and when our practice times overlapped, he kindly signed my swim cap.
5. Swim – Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr
This book takes a historical perspective on how swimming has changed over the millennia. One passage about Trudie Elder, the first woman to swim the Channel, stands out: “‘To me the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time,’ she said 30 years after her Channel swim. ‘It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.’”
6. Man vs Ocean by Adam Walker
This nonfiction book chronicles one man’s quest to complete the Ocean’s Seven, in which a swimmer must cross: the Channel, the Cook Strait, the north Channel (from Ireland to Scotland), the Strait of Gibraltar, the Molokai Strait, the Catalina Channel and the Tsugaru Strait. Only a handful of people have completed all seven swims. It’s a retelling of an adventure that’s difficult to put into words precisely because so few people have done it.
7. Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain by Roger Deakin
Deakin set out to swim through Britain, and here gets into the sea, rivers, streams, locks, ponds, lidos and everything in between. It’s a swimmer’s eye view of the UK. This was a delightful read – all the more so because it gave me a different way of seeing the UK. I wish I’d been given it the minute I arrived in Cornwall, almost 12 years ago: what better way to get to know a new country then seeing it through the water?
8. Swell – A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth
A lighthearted, conversational history, with emphasis on the challenges women once faced just getting in the water, and the “swimming suffragettes” who defied genteel disapproval to claim the right to do so.
9. The Swimmer by Roma Tearne
Set in the small Suffolk village of Orford, this novel revolves around Sri Lankan refugee Ben who swims in the river near Ria’s house. They become friends, and then lovers. Swimming is what kicks everything off, and Ben uses the water to reconnect – after a fashion – with his homeland.
10. The Swimmer by John Cheever
In this short story, wealthy ad man Ned decides to swim home from a cocktail party, through the neighbourhood’s many pools. A classic window, from 1964, on the American suburbs. The swimmers here are pleasure-seekers of a different kind, hankering for sun, drinks, and gossip.
- The Last Wave by Gillian Best is published by Freight Books, priced £9.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop priced £7.49.