In brief: It’s 1925. Louisa is a successful surgeon and gaining a ward in Catherine isn’t exactly what she planned. But when Catherine swims across the Thames, she gains fame and the attention of Mr Black who wants her to swim the English Channel. But is that what Catherine wants?
The good: Interesting to read about how women’s swimming was so controversial at the time.
The not-so-good: Mr Black’s revelation towards the end – it didn’t fit with what really happened and made me judge how trustworthy he was overall.
Why I chose it: Christmas present.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Setting: London, France, USA and Torres Strait Islands
My rating: 7.5 out of 10
I really enjoyed Mary-Rose MacColl’s previous book, In Falling Snow, so asking for this book for Christmas was a no-brainer. Once again, it’s historical fiction, taking lesser known aspects of history and forming an intriguing novel. Swimming Home is about a female surgeon in the 1920s, Louisa and her ward, Catherine, a powerful long distance swimmer in the day where ladies didn’t do that kind of thing. It’s eye-opening as to the lack of options for women less than 100 years ago in career and sport choices.
The story opens as Louisa is called out from her clinic. She’s a busy career woman who has no time for love – her heart is in medicine after an unfortunate affair with one of her teachers as a student. Louisa feels marked and shamed by that affair, perhaps that is why she is wholly devoted to raising funds for her clinic and caring for the people of London’s East End. What Louisa doesn’t realise is that she’s been called to see her ward Catherine (her brother’s daughter) swim across the Thames. She’s shocked at Catherine’s behaviour – Louisa knew she was a devoted swimmer from her youth in the Torres Strait Islands, but really? A woman swimming in London? It’s just another thing for her to deal with. Louisa wants to do things right for the people she loves, but her motivations can be misguided. She made a decision on behalf of a young girl she later took on as a maid and she wants to keep Catherine out of trouble and accept her new home, so she withholds letters from Catherine’s best friend.
Enter wealthy entrepreneur Manfred Lear Black. He’s seen Catherine swim, now he wants to take her to New York to practise for swimming the English Channel. Louisa is reluctant, but decides to give it a go, especially as her clinic will also benefit. For Catherine, the trip is both joyous and heartbreaking. She makes a friend, yet she’s told that her swimming style is all wrong. Plus she has to swim in a ‘tank’ (aka pool) rather than in the open water. But is racing what she wants or what other people want from her?
I found the story interesting from the point of view of Catherine’s journey. I knew very little about the history of female swimming and the difficulties of it being recognised as a serious sport (other than publishing pictures of women in swimming costumes). Louisa was more difficult for me, as she’s not particularly likeable initially. While I could understand her reasons for withholding information for Catherine, I didn’t agree with it and could foresee it was going to end poorly. The mystery aspects were also a little strange for me – Mr Black’s revelation was strange to me. It fit in with his motivations but it had too many holes compared to what really happened (which was also a bit weird). Plus it made his character seem kind of creepy (maybe he was in it for the swimming costumes)! It was revealed, then we found out what was meant to be the real story and he was never mentioned again. I was a bit confused as to what happened to Louisa’s brother and his wife – what was the real story?
The parts of the book that shone for me were the scenes on Thursday Island. The writing was powerfully evocative, bringing scenes of the ocean and the heat and humidity to mind. It also had a feeling that life was simple, direct and true in direct comparison to London which was grey, cold and cloying. While Swimming Home did not capture my heart in quite the same way that In Falling Snow did, I’ll be on the lookout for Mary-Rose MacColl’s next book. She takes forgotten pieces of history and brings them to the forefront of readers’ minds.