|Image from Tate|
It is a moving story that touches on the difficulties of living under a Communist regime and in a country at war. Although the tiny island of Rosmarina escapes the worst of the fighting, the wider ramifications are unavoidable. Conscription, denouncements, blockades and hurried escapes are intertwined with the traditions and gossip of a close-knit isolated community. Such a small community has its benefits and drawbacks; it can be a source of comfort and strength but everyone also always knows everyone else's business. The island surveillance is more benign than the state-sponsored kind, and the novel opens with a vignette from the early 1980s. Magdalena receives a letter from her cousin in America containing nothing more than a child's desire for a penpal. Still the letter has been opened and read by unknown censors. Magdalena's grandfather resorts to subterfuge to try to find out the fate of his son who fled with Katarina and her parents. Marin's whereabouts are unknown to anyone, he has been missing from his family for years.
Jadranka cannot be allowed to vanish too. Her reasons are different, but the connections between her and her missing uncle unfold gradually. The family is held together and pushed apart by the suffering each has endured. Petty jealousies amongst cousins are magnified by the physical distance between them. For the older generation, the memories of bad old days return to haunt them. In the middle are a brother and sister whose bond was ripped apart. Marin and Ana's forced separation has damaged them both, but Ana has been unable to find the goodness in the life she was left. Also widowed very young she abandons Magdalena and Jadranka with her parents, to live on the mainland, rejecting the island completely. The worst damage is done when she insists they stay with her and her abusive boyfriend. His treatment of Magdalena is unforgivable, Ana's refusal to apologise or even sympathise with her daughter is hard to forgive.
Ana is the least sympathetic member of the family, and I wondered about this. She is a 'bad mother', most of all for her lack of empathy, but she too has battle scars. I couldn't bring myself to like her, but I did hope she could find some sort of peace with her life. I felt emotionally involved with all the family, and wanted them all to reconnect with each other, to leave some of the terrible stuff behind. The book captured me very quickly, and I wanted to keep reading. The descriptions of the island are beautiful, and the writing did lift me away from some of the sadness - I mean that in a positive way. I enjoyed the story very much, it's pace was good and it revealed just enough at a time, building towards a surprisingly tense ending. I'm very glad that cover caught my eye.
The First Rule of Swimming is published today in the USA, and on 27th June in the UK. Thank you very much to the publisher Little, Brown for allowing me to read an eARC via Netgalley.