One of the most wonderful things about reading fiction is the opportunity to step inside a character’s head. Even more wonderful is the chance to come away from that experience with new understanding about people whose lives are entirely different from your own. One of the leading characters in Roma Tearne’s novel The Swimmer is a refugee who hails from Sri Lanka. We’ve heard a lot of talk over the past few months about the issue of refugees, so it’s enlightening to read the story – albeit fictional – of one man’s arduous journey, the horrors he’s fled, and what drew him to embark on such a risky and difficult expedition.
Roma Tearne is a novelist whose family fled Sri Lanka when she was ten years old. She was an anonymous refugee who is now an accomplished writer and painter based in Oxford. In her fourth novel, The Swimmer, Roma Tearne tells the tale of a 24-year-old Sri Lankan doctor called Ben who seeks asylum in Britain. He finds his way to Suffolk in East Anglia where he works on a farm in return for food and shelter while he awaits word from the Home Office that he can stay.
But Ben is not the first person we meet in this heartbreaking novel. The beginning of the story is told by Ria, a 43-year-old poet who lives alone in the rambling family summer house that she has inherited. Ria’s bullying brother Jack is pressuring her to sell the house so he can spend his half of the takings but Ria has no intention of leaving the one place that makes her feel peaceful and safe. Ria endured the loss of her father when she was young, and was raised by a neglectful mother. She longs for a husband and child but life has not turned out that way for her. One day, Ria sees Ben swimming in the river that runs through the bottom of her garden. Although he is eighteen years her junior, the pair become inseparable, bound by mutual understanding of the other’s pain and loss.
Three characters take it in turn to tell us the story of Ria, Ben and the people in their lives. Perhaps the most poignant version comes from Ben’s mother Anula, who travels from Sri Lanka to Suffolk when events take an unexpected turn. Danger comes in the form of Ria’s brother who is a member of a far-right political group working to keep refugees out of Britain. The voice of reason and wisdom is embodied in neighbour Eric, who has been alive for long enough to know that people cannot always be counted on to do the right thing.
The other character in The Swimmer is the landscape of the Suffolk coast, and not in a slight way but as a major presence. We see Suffolk in balmy summer and snow-white winter, and watch as the sea and river are in turn calming, broody, dangerous and darkly beautiful. Characters swim and fish and explore the marshlands. They walk windy hills and verdant gardens and raise livestock. The land is utterly entwined in their lives and has a personality of its own.
Without giving anything away in what is a suspenseful story, things don’t go according to anyone’s plans. And the grief the characters suffer is so intelligently written and raw that some parts of the book are hard to read. That’s not a bad thing though – there is a genuine passion and indignation coming off these pages. The Swimmer might make you cry. It might make you listen to the news differently. Most of all, it is heartfelt reminder that the political is always personal.