Book review: The Third Swimmer by Rosalind Brackenbury


To live is to throw something out in front of you, a hope, a belief; it’s chucking your own heart ahead of you like a life belt.


4/5 stars

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a review copy.

This book takes some digesting. Both in the reading of and in the contemplation of.

You have to have time for it, and enjoy the language. In much the same way as The Remains of the Day, it is more about what doesn’t happen and what isn’t said. Inaction and contemplation. And then, suddenly action, suddenly truth – at the end.

The language is sumptuous and eternal, like the sea. I found in it a lot of truths and a lot of beauty. The story is bare, stark. It’s about the war, both on a universal and personal level. About choices made, words not said, things known and unknown at the same time. And there is to me a strong sense of fate, of the inevitable – what is meant to happen and not. Being in the right place or wrong place.

I had read in advance that Brackenbury is a poet, and I do indeed find the language in the book quite lyrical. I happen to enjoy that, but I think you need to go into it knowing that, and knowing that it’s a slow story, and you have to be in the mood for it.

The point of view is fluid, drifting from one character to another (only 3 different ones I think, but there could certainly have been one or two I forgot about) with no clear markers, which adds to the dreamlike, hypnotic quality. I brought this with me to a restaurant on the beach one evening, and sat there with it after my meal, watching the sun set, listening to the waves and reading, reading. It was lovely.

Though I completely understand the reason for writing about such a pivotal time as wartime – the preamble and the aftermath – in this fractured, flowing, slightly elusive way, it also leads to not really understanding characters motivations for some of the choices made, which is always a little unsatisfying to me. I’m talking in particular about one choice made by Olivia which I won’t go into details about as it’s a spoiler, but if you read it you may understand what I mean. There’s also a lot of repetition of themes, by which I mean that the characters are constantly going over the same things in their minds. And indeed that is often how the human mind works, it was just at times a little much of it for a novel, I felt.

Though overall I found it quite gripping (especially the part about the third swimmer, which is a true story) and mesmerising. It was a meditative and joyous read, and I’m sorry to see so few people have apparently read this book (going by number of reviews). It’s definitely worth the effort.






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