Swimming, By Nicola Keegan

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The Independent Culture

What we see of an Olympic champion are those short episodes of supreme physical effort that happen in front of the cameras. This novel is dedicated to the inner life that takes place beyond the public gaze. Pip Ash comes from the vast, empty spaces of Kansas. She's vast herself, reaching six feet by her early teens, but her private world is very far from empty. Pip's family is Catholic and her religion is a predominating influence. Her formative years are filled with nuns and priests, often bearing strange names that range from left-field - Sister Nestor - to outlandish: Sister Fergus. Unusually for contemporary fiction and non-fiction, their activities are benign, as well as versatile: notable among her first trainers is the unfailingly helpful Father Tim.

Pip's relationship with water is primal. As a baby the only cure for her manic hyperactivity is a dip in the pool and later on the endorphins that flood her body during training sessions take her to states of euphoric peace. Training and competing begin to dominate her waking hours and Father Tim soon gives way to the coach of coaches, the guru-like Ernest K Mankovitz. Pip races upwards through interstate and national events to come up against international opposition, some from suspiciously masculine East Germans. Her own body baulks at puberty and her menstruation starts late, but she has other concerns more serious still.

Pip has to swim on valiantly against a rip tide of family loss. First her acerbic elder sister Bron dies of cancer. Then her father Leonard (a naturalist and leading authority on bats), is killed in a flying accident. Broken by double bereavement, her mother commences a long series of nervous breakdowns. To plunge into the pool is to enter another world, but Pip cannot leave these tragedies behind; as she powers through the water her father and sister have a disconcerting habit of popping up in front of her.

Nicola Keegan's prose is filled with inventive riffs to draw out the poignant turbulences of her heroine, both in the water and out. Reading the book becomes itself like a long, sinuous surge through the pool. It's a narrative with a strong rhythmic flow which enables Keegan to compress the passage of time, taking us forwards in gentle glides and sudden bursts.

The cross that all athletes must bear is anti-climax. Pip's sporting life is over by her late twenties, leaving her faced with the mourning she has deferred, as well as the existential problem of what comes next. It's a hard comedown, particularly because she has surrendered herself so totally to swimming that there has been little time left to enjoy success or to sample its trappings. Keegan stitches all of this adeptly to deliver a classy fiction about the tenuous relationship of worldly success to the intimate self.