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News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore

Nadine Isler



I am a rugged bushman bravely chopping my way through masses of thick overgrown vegetation. Or at least that’s how I felt after attempting to read the deceptively thin novel by Gregory O’Brien.

Attempting to make sense of it, I turned to the blurb which informed me that it was “at once a travel book, an autobiographical novel and free-floating meditation on Europe and the Antipodes” and that it “begins with its narrator suspended in the salty, tideless waters of the Mediterranean.” Right. So far so good.
A swimming philosopher. Go on. “Adrift on an ocean of art history, literature and music, of memories and a dream-like present, O’Brien introduces a cast of underwater characters that includes Jacques Cousteau, the French secret service agent Dominique Prieur, Henri Matisse and the naked river-swimming nineteenth- century nun Mother Aubert.” Uh-huh. I think I’m beginning to see what the problem is here.
But still, give me the rest: “Modernism, the politics of French nuclear testing, swimming, drowning and underwater explosions are twined together with the life of a family in an innovative and engaging exploration.” Indeed. I get it now. It’s a book about nothing. Written in a way that’s hard to read.
O’Brien, also a poet, anthologist and art writer, is possibly best known for his collection of essays, After Bathing at Baxter’s, which was published to acclaim in 2002.
I did eventually finish the book and after further battling my way through the dense undergrowth that is O’Brien’s writing, the promised story did eventually emerge. Something to do with a beach and some swimmers. Or something. But then, I could have figured that out from the blurb.
Not for the fainthearted – pack a machete.