The Swimmers by Chloe Lane (Victoria University Press, 2020), 218 pp., $30; Victory Park by Rachel Kerr (Mākaro Press, 2020), 246 pp, $35
The Swimmers by Chloe Lane and Victory Park by Rachel Kerr are both debut novels longlisted in this year’s Ockham awards (Victory Park went on to win the prize for best first novel), but this is not the only thing these books have in common. They are both also about women living precariously.
Erin, the protagonist of The Swimmers, is a postgraduate student in Auckland working part time in an art gallery. Her tenuous hold on things is not due simply to limited employment prospects, nor to her tendency to self-sabotage—perhaps best represented by her dubious relationship choices. Lane’s novel deftly describes the existential uncertainties and mis-steps of early adulthood more generally, when the strong pull towards freedom and independence strains against the emotional bonds—and baggage—connecting us to our family of origin.
The push-and-pull between whānau and freedom is brought into sharp focus in The Swimmers by its tight time frame (five days), during which Erin travels to Northland for a long-weekend family gathering—but not just any family gathering. Erin’s mother Helen has recently moved in with her sister and brother, who had both remained on the family farm, because Helen is in the final stages of motor neurone disease. As an only child whose parents have long since gone their separate ways, Erin had already been facing the difficult task of re-negotiating the tight mother–daughter dyad of her childhood, but now her mother’s terminal decline (she’s confined to bed, unable to speak or eat) places Erin in the unbearable situation of grieving the loss of her mother before she has even died.
At the novel’s opening—a wonderful set-piece in which Aunty Wynn drives Erin up north from the city—Wynn’s response to Erin’s inquiries about her mother is simultaneously evasive and no-nonsense. ‘“She’s good,” Wynn says of her sister, “Though you should know, your mum has asked me to help her exit.”’ It is a grim scenario, driving the rest of the novel’s action, but not without humour and warmth in Lane’s treatment, where sensitivity never gives way to sentimentality.
If The Swimmers is a kind of ‘fish out of water’ tale, about an educated, urban twenty-something thrown into the provincial world of Aunty Wynn and Uncle Cliff with their simple meals, no Netflix and dodgy decor, it is also one where the ‘worlds collide’ scenario is shown to be already in a state of flux. Part of the family farm that used to stretch to the shores of Kaipara Harbour has been sold off to developers, and the old family home is now within sight of a new housing development (where Wynn’s high-school-student daughter Bethany is improbably installed alone in a new-build home of her own, from the proceeds of the land sale). And just as Erin and her mother have been drawn back into the family orbit by Helen’s terminal diagnosis, so do other connections manifest across the generations. The swimming prowess that the women of the family have in common, for instance, provides a shared history of endurance while also throwing into greater relief what it might mean to lose a body’s strength and capacities to a disease like MND.
The re-emergence of emotional bonds within the family also makes it plausible—for the most part—that women as different as Erin, Helen and Wynn could undertake the drastic, illegal task at the centre of the narrative. The speed with which Erin is required to get on board with her mother’s plans, with some comic twists involving the local vet, a creepy neighbour and the police, means that another set-piece towards the end of the novel—a final beach visit for Helen, a bracing winter ocean swim for Erin, Wynn and Bethany—provides much-needed breathing-space, as it were, even as it is freighted with all the emotional weight of last things and leave-taking.
The novel’s powerful exploration of love and loss is, however, somewhat diminished by the absence of any further insight from the older Erin who, it is implied throughout, is narrating these events from a distance of some years. She discloses nothing about her current circumstances so that the reader is left in the dark about how Helen’s death shaped her daughter’s subsequent life. Perhaps The Swimmers wants to refuse any easy solace—grief transformed into wisdom, for instance—but the failure to make more of the device of retrospective narration still felt like a missed opportunity.
Water as a space of peace and escape, haunted by the possibility of loss and death, also unexpectedly figures at key moments in the even bleaker lives of Victory Park, which takes its name from the block of state-housing flats at the centre of the story. Like Erin in The Swimmers, Kara has a close, if fraught, relationship with her mother—fathers don’t figure much in either novel—but the central emotional dynamic in Kerr’s novel is that between Kara, a bereaved single mum doing it tough, and Bridget, a new resident of Victory Park, separated from a husband who is awaiting trial for the latest high-profile financial scandal.
The ‘worlds collide’ scenario in Victory Park is based not on generational change as in The Swimmers but on class differences, and there is never any doubt that the saintly Kara will prevail, in moral terms at least, over the interloper Bridget, for whom the narrative finds no sympathy and who never becomes more than a one-dimensional character. In her youth Bridget was a competitive diver, but she is as shallow as her swimming pool is deep. An early scene where Kara accompanies Bridget to break into her old, glamorous home plays out the dynamic of this friendship in ways that will be repeated with only minor variations throughout. Bridget thoughtlessly shows off—her wealth, her health, her body—while Kara bites her tongue, enjoying a moment of stolen luxury by the pool in her faded, saggy underwear.
Kara and Bridget both have sons who are in their first year of school, and who not only reflect their respective mother’s moral compass—Jayden is caring and emotionally stable, unlike Rafe who is spoilt and prone to lash out—but also provide another means by which the two women’s strengths and weaknesses are further contrasted. Under Bridget’s care Jayden almost drowns; later in the novel when Kara is suddenly left alone with the two boys, far from home, she undertakes a heroic journey at the expense of her own health to bring them back to safety.
There is a deeply buried seam of anger running through Victory Park; not just Kara’s—concealed, if not repressed for the most part, beneath layers of love, empathy, grief, chronic ill-health and the never-ending anxiety around money—but implied through the narrative’s forensic-like attention to the material and sensory environments of poverty: food banks and chip shops and too-small, damp flats with smells and peeling paint, where every single day brings impossible decisions about surviving on scant resources. Spend the last few coins on bus fare or force an over-tired child to walk home so that you can buy him a meal? Help out an ailing neighbour who may never be able to return the favour when you are the one in need? Bridget is only playing at poverty, but Kara knows it in her bones and navigates its networks at every level of her life.
So an after-school conversation in which Bridget’s ex, Martin (making a rare appearance, before his trial, to collect Rafe), unnecessarily reiterates the fall from grace his family has suffered—‘it’s not what Bridget and Rafe are used to,’ Martin says of their new address, ‘no disrespect’—feels forced, and draws a response from Kara that sits uneasily with what the reader knows of Bridget. ‘She’s trying to be independent,’ Kara tells Martin, although all we have seen to this point is Bridget’s thoughtless exploitation of Kara’s friendship by a woman almost paralysed by self-pity and privilege.
Without a trace of irony, Martin replies that he just wants his son to be happy, and Kara says:
‘Some of us are happy where we are.’
He looked at her as if to check if she was joking, then saw she meant it.
How was he to know if she was happy or not?
This question feels far from rhetorical, and goes to the heart of Victory Park’s depiction of lives without privilege, without even adequate health care or heating. I’m not sure that the novel ever resolves its conundrum about the limits of empathy and the ethics of observing the lives of others: how can we know if they are happy or not? How do we know what it feels like to live in their world? Victory Park rightly insists that lives like Kara’s demand attention, in every sense, from those whose lives are qualitatively different from hers. But the character of Kara is too good, too caring, too self-sacrificing throughout and, for all the piling on of mundane detail, her life is shown from an outsider’s perspective or, at least, a perspective from which Kara’s inner contradictions or conflicts remain largely occluded.
Kara’s insistence, in her brief conversation with Martin, that she is also happy may be a self-defensive retort, stung by his judgment of her life; or a sign of denial—an understandable survival strategy in the face of unbearable conditions. It may even be what she truly believes. But it is impossible to be sure because I never really felt that Kara came alive on the page; selfless characters are hard to draw without them becoming self-less, and lives of the long-suffering test less saintly readers’ patience. How many times do we need to see Bridget taking advantage of Kara’s kindness? How many times can Kara forgive and forget? Both these characters run the risk of simply becoming ciphers for certain opposing qualities or values, springing from the novel’s justifiable sense of outrage about who wins and who gets left behind in Victory Park.
WENDY PARKINS is the author of Every morning, so far, I’m alive: A memoir (Otago University Press, 2019) and was longlisted for the Michael Gifkins Prize in 2021. @WendyParkins1