Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer

26th Apr 2011


However, to me this fails to acknowledge the muted, almost resigned attitudes of the characters that makes their melancholy, if possible, even more poignant.

There are few dramatic confrontations, and the characters don’t particularly shed a lot of tears considering these pages are full of broken people, including two grieving mothers.

The collection opens with a novella, Walk for Mankind, told from the point of view of a fifty-year-old Richard Appleby as he recounts the year his thirteen-year-old self fell for a confident, complicated girl called Sasha Horowitz.

The characters are intricately developed, not just in this opener but throughout the book, and the stories are constructed with the kind of acute detail that make you begin to doubt whether they’re really fiction at all.

The second story, Molten, details a mother that has recently lost her teenage son, and has found solace in his record collection, as she becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of her family.

Jump follows Carolee and her young co-worker Alejandro, who seem to jar like tectonic plates, until a couple of random events, a dead car battery and a bad urinary tract infection, lead them to a better understanding of one another.

In possibly the most critically-acclaimed of the stories, Dwell Time, Laura’s husband has failed to come home after work and we see every aching, lingering minute as she tries to track him down, on top of trying to keep her step-family running smoothly. Her Firstborn conveys the anxiety of Dean, as he prepares for the birth of his first child.

The book ends with Things Said Or Done, a short story linked beautifully to the opening novella, where a now fifty-year-old Sasha Horowitz attends her younger brother’s wedding.

The story mostly focuses on her relationship with her father, who we saw as quite the hero in Richard Appleby’s earlier account of things, but now through Sasha’s eyes we see him as a fragile, difficult old man.

You get a sense that virtually every character in this book is just trying to keep their head above water, as they struggle to connect with each other and move on from some very difficult circumstances.

And yet somehow, Packer manages to capture this in a collection of stories that are not depressing and morose, but uplifting, beautiful and sometimes very funny.

These are stories of heartbreak, but the overwhelming message that I get from this book is one of hope. So perhaps the speared heart on the cover is not just being pierced, but is also being reeled in and rescued, too.

Swim Back To Me by Ann Packer was published this month by Alfred A. Knopf and is available in hardback for £13.06, or in Kindle eBook for £11.75.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Those days when you need a good cry. This is a perfect train book, as the short stories could be cracked out in one journey.

Other recommended reading: Michael Chabon‘s A Model World is a collection of short stories with similarly well-developed characters, and lovely waves of melancholy and humour.

Cariad Martin