The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic,

Without planning it, I have just read one book after another set in Croatia, one set in the fictitious village of Gost on the mainland the other on a small island.  Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man and Courtney Angela Brkic’s The First Rule of Swimming portray different lives and paths, but complement each other in portraying contemporary life, where the past is ever-present and no one likes to speak of those who are absent.

First RuleThis is the first work of Courtney Angela Brkic I have read though I see she has published a noted collection of short stories entitled Stillness and a memoir The Stone Fields, short-listed for the Freedom of Expression Award.

The prologue of The First Rule of Swimming starts on the fictitious island of Rosmarina, Croatia in 1982 when 8-year-old Magdalena is reading a letter from her cousin Katarina, a letter that has clearly been opened and resealed.

“Katarina’s family had left when Magdalena was only two, a shadowy period that she tried hard to recall. But she was never sure if the faces she sometimes pictured were real or simply her imagination.”

When she writes the return postcard, her grandfather writes one as well, gluing it to hers – a message – to which they receive a cryptic reply about a cat, which causes Magdalena some confusion and her grandfather immense physical pain.

The book setting then moves to the present, with Magdalena taking care of her grandparents, her grandfather now in a stroke induced coma, but refusing to let go. Though most of the island’s youth leave to find jobs on the mainland, her strong connection to the island keeps her there pursuing a teaching career and ignoring any pressure to do otherwise, even at the expense of what seems like pending spinsterhood.

NY harbourBut when her sister Jadranka leaves for New York and disappears without trace a few weeks after her arrival, she leaves the security of the island to go after her, followed soon after by her estranged mother.

“It was as if a cord connected her to Rosmarina, and only for Jadranka did she have the will to fight against it. This attachment was both habit and biology. In her childhood a researcher had studied the islanders’ sense of direction. It was a capability he explained in terms of the Inuit in the far-off Arctic, who could find their way even through blizzards.

“It’s a rare genetic gift,” he had explained to her grandfather. The scientist had concluded that not everyone possessed the skill – which he termed innate nautical orientation – but she belonged squarely to the group that did. “

Behind these events is the slow revelation of what happened to certain members of the family including the girl’s Uncle and the truth about their father, something their mother has always kept from them and that appears to be connected to Jadranka’s disappearance. It reveals an era of suspicion, denunciation, false imprisonment and vendetta. Life was dangerous for anyone associated with those who held opinions not deemed favourable.

“Grudges went back generations, and children were judged by things their parents had done, some of them years before their birth. Small wonder, Magdalena sometimes thought, that her sister preferred places where nobody knew her.”

The two girls know little of the past, but will come to learn how much it has affected their present, the journey to New York will help them find answers.

It is a compelling read that like The Hired Man, will leave the reader curious and disturbed about the recent past and that tendency for humanity to brush things under the carpet as if they never happened.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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22 thoughts on “The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic,

    • I think they are tentative attempts and certainly a sign that some are ready to reflect on that era. Reminds me a little of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and its context of the Biafran War, another chapter that a whole generation was not prepared to talk about or address.

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  1. I enjoyed your review – but I was struck most by the last line “tendency for humanity to brush things under the carpet as if they never happened” We seem to have been doing that forever and we never seem to learn – you hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head!
    I know little of the Balkan conflicts beyond what I saw and read in the press at the time – do you need to have an understanding of it to follow the story?

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    • I don’t know if that tendency to ignore and not speak about the past is part of a survival instinct, but it is interesting that people like Kevin Powers and others are writing about their experiences so soon after experiencing them and I recently read a review by someone whose father had been in the resistance and Uncles in a war say how much she appreciated knowing what it was those men actually are going through on their return, because the silence and distance and not knowing is also very painful for those who have to then live with the consequence.

      Both these books deal more with those left with the silence or the perpetrators of silence and they peel back layers very slowly and carefully. They are certainly not records of events, but speak more of the impact on those who live on. That’s why they do make the reader want to know more.

      Aminatta Forna in particular succeeds in showing how confusing and dreadful it all was by not labelling any of her characters with beliefs, they are villagers and neighbours and as readers we feel the injustice of individuals being selected and removed.

      I am sure there is more brave writing to come from this area yet. The lesson seems to be that there are no lessons, humanity continues to congregate, separate, bear grudges, influence and eliminate what it does not approve of, in waves and crescendos.

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  2. It was that last remark that struck a chord with me as well. Earlier this year I read Chris Bohjalian’s novel, ‘The Sandcastle Girls’ which is, in part about the genocide of the Armenians during the First World War. I knew nothing about this at all. As far as I’m aware it is a part of history that never gets taught in our schools. One of the remarkable things about fiction is that it can be so influential in making us face up to the truth.

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  3. Wonderful review, Claire! I don’t think I have read a book by a Croatian author before. So I am really glad to discover a new-to-me author. Brkic’s book looks quite interesting with many secrets and surprises. I will keep an eye for it.

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      • Thank you Vishy, so kind of you to notice 🙂 I usually have these 30 minute windows of free time during my working day as I drive around between lessons and client treatments, but recently it’s all been back to back appointments and working late, so the reading and writing has been suffering – it’s like being in disequilibrium not to have time to blog, never mind, I’m hoping for a break with the festive season approaching.

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      • Hope your schedule becomes less hectic, Claire. Christmas is not very far away (atleast it looks nearer with all this snow falling here in WordPress :)) and so I hope you get more free time to read and blog.

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      • I totally agree with you, Claire – it is definitely wonderful that more writers from different countries are writing in English these days. Makes so much rich literature accessible to us.

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