Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer

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Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Historian Thomas Denham grieves for his mother and is drawn into unresolved questions about her past. As his own life takes new twists, he finds unacceptable parallels in the past but they are only a prelude to the revelations to come.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 978-0349119236

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Watching his mother die, historian Thomas Denham thought he ought to find some significance in the event, but failed to feel anything. Sadness, maybe, or an appreciation of 'tragedy' - which it wasn't really since she was a fair old age, had lived a good life, and the death was not a sudden unexpected shock. But there should be something significant in the passing of one's mother, shouldn't there?

Thomas doesn't feel it. He doesn't weep.

Not outwardly at any rate. Not in ways that he would understand as finding significance and grieving... for grief actually hits him very hard in ways that he doesn't expect.

Having failed to find "significance", that all-important grail for the historian, in her death, he starts to seek it in her life. He wonders about the words she whispered during her final illness "This is a punishment". What could his dear, perfect, law-abiding, husband-&-child-adoring mother possibly have done to deserve punishment?

Gradually, through the sorting of things that follows a death... the tidying away of a life... Thomas begins to unearth rumours and possibilities extrapolated from keepsakes, which trigger long-buried scarce-understood memories from his distant childhood.

Meanwhile, intersected with Thomas' journey in the present day, his mother (Dee)'s story unfolds. We're taken back to Cyprus in the 1950s... days when the British have more or less acknowledged that the only remaining tasks of the Empire are to clear the desks, hand over the chalk and switch out the lights, but who cling on in places (like Cyprus) where they cannot even manage a pretence at a dignified exit. These are the days of EOKA - Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston, or National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, who were fighting for 'self-determination'. Actually they were fighting for the right to rid the island of, first the British, and then the Turks, so that they could self-determine to unify with Greece. The Turks on the other hand would be equally pleased to see the British depart, but want a truly independent Cyprus, a state in its own right.

As we know both got half of their wish, neither got all of it and Cyprus remains divided.

But back in the 1950s who knew what might be achieved. Certainly the British that remained, Dee among them, were ex-pats in the old sense. They were "old school". Military or military-wife, or military-spinster-daughter out on a do-gooding mission with the support organisations. You got there by boat. A long passage upon which, if you were travelling alone, a flirtation was almost de rigueur... but most definitely to be consigned to the 50-year-rule files upon landing.

When you got there - being a military wife - you settled into a home that was either rented or army, you settled into a life that tried hard to cut you off from your local neighbours and keep you within the 'compound' - literally or figuratively. Dee tries to be dutiful... and tries to be true to herself... and to her neighbours... all honest parts of who she is, which are not in direct conflict, but which have shadowy borders of uncertainty. If she absolutely HAD to choose, where would she?

Back in the present day Thomas is embarking on a potential relationship himself. Have the taboos really changed, or just shifted... and to what degree will he yield to his own temptations?

The two stories stumble forward in parallel, the differences and analogies all the clearer as a result. So much has changed, and so little.

Mawer is stronger in talking about the past. The depiction of the Mediterranean in those final days of Empire is understated but accurate. It is for the most part a single viewpoint (Dee's) and it is biased to that extent. Using Thomas' history profession, he gets to question some of the interpretations, but mostly he leaves us to make up our own mind about rights and wrongs. He just tells the stories.

Reading it as someone utterly ignorant of Cyprus and its history beyond the vague knowledge of the division and the green line, I found it intriguing. The weakest novelists talk down to you, assume you know nothing and feel the need to explain every last nuance. Other insensitives assume you know it all and fail to leave enough clues for you to seek out the facts you need to fully understand. Getting the balance right is an art. Mawer doesn't feel the need to explain... if you don't know about EOKA (& I didn't) then you should do, go look it up!, he seems to say... and I agree with him. It's part of our history. I should know. And now I know a little more.

I've always argued that one of the functions of novels is not just to entertain us with stories and philosophical conundrums, but to teach us real facts - or encourage us to learn them. Much of my history, geography, social & political theory is from the gleanings of stories and the follow-up (what, when, how, why) that they lead me towards.

One result of Ithaca is that I want to know more about what happened (and how and why). Another is that I want to visit the places described, although I can't imagine how much they will have changed since those days. Maybe its because I want to see how much they've changed... the best novels can be trusted as social histories can they not?

The best novels? Yes. Swimming to Ithaca is up there among the best. It is full of atmosphere. There are set pieces and mythical reverences galore. There are archetypal characters: cads and bounders and squaddies and officers and spies and poets and gin-drinking wives and lusty natives... and freedom fighters (or terrorists?)... all of whom seem strangely real. Still the tale is full of tension and red herrings of who betrayed (or will betray) whom and how and when, and the real revelation manages to come out of the blue at the very end.

There's nothing specifically lyrical about the prose, and the interspersed poetry felt a little forced, but the third person narrative shifts subtly between the epochs and the pace is held all the way through. There are moving episodes and amusing ones... but mostly, you'll turn the pages to find out what did happen, and what will happen. And only one of those questions will be answered.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you've enjoyed this book then you might also enjoy Playing With The Moon by Eliza Graham.

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Buy Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer at Amazon.com.


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Jacquie Longden said:

(Jacquie won a copy of Swimming to Ithaca in our July competition.)

This isnt the type of book I would normally choose to read - I knew nothing about the political background, and initially I thought it would be dull and dry.

I did enjoy reading it, and I learnt a lot and had a really vivid picture of a 50's Cyprus from the climate, flora and fauna, to the hot and complicated relationships.

I thought that the way that Thomas remembered and viewed his mother from a child's perspective and as an adult - having idealised her as a 'mother' but not a woman was very interesting and insightful - we don't necessarily view our parents as people in their own right - with pasts and mistakes, and as sexual beings. The way that he then realised that, with this knowledge, looking back, he hated her, whilst simultaneously adoring her was interesting too.

The present day part of the story, I agree, is much weaker, although the connection between Thomas's behaviour and Dee's behaviour is an interesting comparison. Her 'inappropriate' relationships are guided by romance and love and emotion in a true and genuine spirit, whilst his seem to be driven by a sense of inadequacy; he was desperate to be loved by his mother, and has some sort of Oedipus complex perhaps. He sees himself as young, even compared to the younger women he 'picks up' for casual relationships and needs to feel wanted and needed by them.

I thought that the ending of the book was disappointing. Although I guessed about the identity of Janet earlier in the book, I felt that this was a relationship (with Dee and Janet) that could have been explored.

I thought that the most of the poetry excerpts were not relevant, and added nothing really to the book...

This all said though - I am glad I read it, and I would recommend it.