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.
This 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.
But 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.