2016 Reviews · Australian · historical fiction · Uncategorized

Book review: Swimming Home by Mary-Rose MacColl

Swimming HomeBook blurb:

In London in the mid-1920s, a young Australian and her aunt are each on a journey of self-discovery – one by attempting to swim the English Channel the other to rediscover the woman she used to be. From the bestselling author of In Falling Snow.

The lone swimmer, turning over now to switch to a perfectly executed back crawl, wasn’t Oxford or Cambridge, wasn’t a man. It was a woman, a girl. It was Catherine. Of course it was Catherine.

It’s 1925 and fifteen-year-old Catherine Quick longs to feel once more the warm waters of her home, to strike out into the ocean off the Torres Strait Islands and swim, as she’s done since she was a tiny child. But with her recent move to London where she lives with her aunt Louisa, Catherine feels that everything she values has been stripped away.

Louisa, a busy, confident London surgeon who fought boldly for equality for women, holds definite views on the behaviour of her young niece. She wants Catherine to pursue an education, just as she did, to ensure her future freedom. Since Catherine arrived, however, Louisa’s every step seems to be wrong and she is finding it harder and harder to block painful memories from her past.

It takes the influence of enigmatic American banker Manfred Lear Black to convince Louisa to come to New York where Catherine can test her mettle against the first women in the world to swim the English Channel. And where, unexpectedly, Louisa can finally listen to what her own heart tells her.

Like Mary-Rose MacColl’s bestselling novel, In Falling Snow, Swimming Home tells a story of ordinary women who became extraordinary.

5 stars 

Brisbane based author Mary-Rose MaColl first caught my attention when I read her 2012 release In Falling Snow. Swimming Home is her latest release and a novel I whole heartedly endorse as a fantastic read from cover to cover.

Swimming Home is the beautiful story of two fiercely strong and determined women in their own right. In 1925, fifteen year old Catherine Quick’s life is irrevocably changed when she must make the move from her idyllic island home in the Torres Strait, north of the mainland of Australia, to live with her Aunt Louisa in London. Still grieving from the loss of her Father and the sea change she must make from her sunny home to the bleakness of London, Catherine struggles to fit in to her new surrounds. Catherine tries hard to please her Aunt Louisa, who always appears constantly busy running her clinics for the poor as a successful female surgeon. To fit in with her peers at her new boarding school, Catherine takes on a challenge set by the girls at her school to swim the Thames. Catherine does so successfully, gaining notoriety in the newspaper but also earning the ire of her Aunt Louisa. Despite being expelled from her boarding school for the incident, Catherine’s successful swimming achievement gains the attention of a Mr Manfred Lear Black, a wealthy American who finances a women’s only swimming club in America. The acquaintance with Manfred Lear Black leads to Louisa and Catherine to make a journey to the US. Manfred requests that Louisa assist in a clinic he has financed. Manfred also hopes that Catherine’s time at the women’s swimming club in America will prepare her for the ultimate achievement in women’s swimming – to successfully swim the renowned English Channel. Louisa and Catherine find that their journey together to foreign shores opens up more than just personal attainments. It also signals the opening of deep seated family secrets, lies from the past and a chance to atone for previous decisions.

Swimming Home is a graceful coming of age story, combined with a family mystery. I lapped up the threads focussed on Catherine Quick’s childhood growing up in the tranquil waters of the Torres Strait Islands region of Australia. This was aided by MacColl’s wonderfully languid descriptions of island life, she skilfully depicts the people and the relaxed nature of the place itself. Through MacColl’s expert prose I felt transported to another place and time. I often had feelings of drifting alongside Catherine. Equally vivid are the descriptions of Catherine’s life in London. I experienced the stark contrast of colourful island life to the greyness and briskness of life in this very different part of the world to Australia.

MacColl has devised two admirable characters in Catherine and Louisa. Both women make great achievements in their own right. From the ambitious Louisa as a female surgeon, a rare figure in her profession, to Catherine who famously competes to become the first female to undertake the English Channel swim. As much as this is an engaging family mystery, it also presents a very interesting social history of the treatment of women in the 1920’s era. MacColl provides superb insight into the societal attitudes of the time and also provides an examination of the birth of woman’s competitive swimming. Readers will find it enlightening to discover that many of the background characters featured in the swimming aspects of the novel were actually based on real life people who lived in this fascinating era of women’s swimming.

For me the delight in Swimming Home came from the rather unexpected but completely fitting ending. It suited the novel perfectly. I also enjoyed witnessing how Louisa and Catherine, who are at odds with one another, unable to understand each others motivations, come to a union at the close of the novel.

I highly recommend choosing Swimming Home as it is a book written with passion and understanding of the main subject at hand. It is an extremely well written book that rewards the reader with a passionate family drama and a comprehensive social history of women in the 1920’s.

 Swimming Home was published in 2015 by Allen & Unwin. https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/fiction/Swimming-Home-Mary-Rose-MacColl-9781760113315

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