Splashy New Novel Dives Into Competitive 'Swimming' Narrated by a precocious young woman born to be an Olympic swimmer, Nicola Keegan's sparkling first novel captures the arc of a great athlete's career.


Book Reviews

Splashy New Novel Dives Into Competitive 'Swimming'

200 cover 'Swimming'
By Nicola Keegan
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt.

Nicola Keegan possesses an exhilarating mix of talent and mastery. Her sparkling first novel, Swimming, narrated by a precocious young woman born to be an Olympic swimmer, has loads of dramatic tension, a fresh narrative voice and subject matter just aching to be explored.

Keegan's Philomena Ash, aka Pip, is less than a year old when she is immersed in water in her first aqua baby class in Glendale, Kan. "I kick; it moves me, and I feel joy." By the time she is an awkward 6-footer at 13, her coach encourages her to swim year-round. The nuns at school approve, suggesting it might curb her "excessive flightiness."

Then Pip's sister dies of cancer, and her father crashes his plane. Her grieving mother takes to her bed. For a time, Pip sits beside her. "I'm guarding Mom," she says, "watching Mom sleep, moving in close to make sure she's still breathing." Swimming becomes Pip's psychic anchor.

Keegan deftly details the iron bond between Pip and her coach, the inevitable rivalries and the relentless discipline. She captures the "bright edgy haze" of poolside light, and the experience of swimming until euphoria brings "a sweet shuddering relief with each breath."

Pip is a captivating narrator, bawdy, skittish and self-conscious, often emotionally raw. Filled with "a cool specific dread" at the prospect of losing her virginity in college, she muses, "I'm afraid it will be embarrassing, that I will die of embarrassment — not literally, but in an English major way. I'm too tall, too strong, too gangly. I laugh at the wrong moments, have breakdowns at the wrong times, am always the last at everything except a good race."

Swimming is Nicola Keegan's first novel. Pierre Dufour hide caption

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Pierre Dufour

Swimming is Nicola Keegan's first novel.

Pierre Dufour

When she faces the crowd to receive her first Olympic medal at 18, she bursts into tears. "The nasty photographer from Time zooms in," she notes wryly, "capturing the red eyeballs, the heaving shoulders, the grinchy grimace, the rivers of snot."

Still, she's on to the next race. Will she go home with a fistful of gold? Will she make the next U.S. team in four years? And the next? What happens when her body gives out? The pressure never ends.

Swimming captures the arc of a great athlete's career, from training to competition to the inevitable endpoint, filtered through the intense awareness of a sensitive woman whose world has been shattered by grief. An overabundance of peripheral characters makes it a not-quite perfect book. But it is a flagrantly gifted, lyrical and moving beginning.

Excerpt: 'Swimming'

By Nicola Keegan
Hardcover, 320 pages
List Price: $25.95

When I close my eyes, I'm saturated in a deep, peaceful, perfectly entitled, one hundred percent natural love of life and all life's things. I'm pulling myself through water at the end of a long swim, reaching for the endorphin torpor as the fatigue washes over me. Lilly Cocoplat makes me laugh so hard I choke on my own spit. It hurts to write with a pencil, to sit down on a chair, to pee, to take off my sweater, to run up the stairs, to answer the phone, to open a book, to get in a car, to get out of a car, to take off my shoes, to lie down on my bed. The ache is proof of an efficient swim; the more I ache, the faster I become. But when the sun cuts through the atrium and the steam rises up from the pool, the water takes on a bright, edgy haze and I lose myself. I watch my shadow crawl across the tiles below and don't feel the pain of doing as many as fifty sets although all the other Dolphins bitterly complain. All I feel is the sweet shuddering relief with each breath I draw and the relentless silence of my mind. I don't mention these bouts of timeless love of the infinite universe to anyone, not even Lilly.

Lilly started swimming when she was diagnosed with asthma, but I don't have anything specifically wrong with me yet. I just like swimming and all the things that happen around it. A cute collegiate swimmer comes out on deck to talk to one of the assistant coaches, some kids are making out in the parking lot and don't care who knows, a Dolphin brings a Playgirl hidden in her backpack and we take turns looking at sad guys with happy sausages looking out the windows of their unzipped jeans. And when there's a sleepover at a Dolphin's house, no one sleeps, but we wake up at six and swim for two hours anyway because the harder it is, the more we suffer, and the more we suffer, the closer we become.

Coach Stan stands next to the edge of the pool with a whistle in his teeth and a grim look in his eyes. I love training in the Olympic pool, watching the big shots work out, listening to their coaches scream MOVE YOUR ASS; THIS AIN'T YESTERDAY. We look at each other and laugh — He just said ASS — then we swim for an hour, an hour and a half, and dry off eating the healthy fig s'mores that Lilly Cocoplat's mother made. In the summer I'm a free agent, in the water so long my hair emerges from my head like strings of nylon.

At the annual banquet last year Coach Stan took Leonard aside and said: I'd like to see what would happen if Philomena trained seriously for one second instead of partaking in these perpetual shenanigans with Lilly Cocoplat, as Leonard half listened with polite disinterest.

Before a major meet, Stan slaps his clipboard onto one bent knee, lowers his voice, and speaks to us as though we were listening. Young swimmers: The essence of potential. When this pool is combined with the best an individual has to offer ... listen up, Lilly ... with the best collective effort, anything is possible. It is an arena ... Lilly and I get bored, make vagina faces, yell: Go, Coach Stan! Dippers Forever! Coach Stan ignores us: But you better make sure that you really integrate technique. I've seen world-class swimmers revert to faulty technique in times of stress, going back to their days in the pool with their first coach, and their swim falls apart just the way it did then.

I make my eyes into big Oh reallys behind his back, flashing the peace sign, which is in fact v for vagina, as Lilly Cocoplat falls over herself. The idea that one day I will be standing next to the East German world-record holder Fredrinka Kurds as she spits chlorine out of the corner of her mouth and twenty zillion people scream does not cross my mind for one second. I don't even know where Moscow is exactly; I just know it is bad.

After practice we're in a hurry to go home; there's homework to finish and we're hungry again. Some Dolphins take the time to dry their hair, flipping their heads upside down then swooshing the hair up again so it frames their faces like nice fur. I don't; I stuff it under a knit cap and let it sit like that until it dries into funny shapes. This drives my mother nuts. Dry your hair, for God's sake; it's twenty below.

Leonard wants me to be a mini-Bron, but I won't. He wants me to be an intellectual success, skipping entire grades like rope, wants me to bring home prizes from French clubs, wants to display my medals, ribbons, shiny cups from tricky debates and interscholastic spelling bees. He wants me to look out at the world, curious and smart, then he would like to talk to me about it, over dinner. He's not the least bit interested in how fast I swim, barely listening when I explain how I lowered my personal best once again. He reminds me, on Sunday afternoons, during short trips to the grocery store. You're eleven now. He reminds me when he picks me up, when he drops me off, when we fly, his voice cutting through the static. Well into the double digits. He reminds me during commercials, when he's boiling water for tea. Junior high is serious business. But I am so overinformed that the end is coming, I don't believe it, just keep hoping that something miraculous will happen and I will be back, like Jesus. I am shocked, sickened, stunned, and amazed when I find myself standing by the pool on the last day of my last workout of the last season. I have no idea how right I am when I get dramatic: Pieces of my heart are being ripped up and, and, and it's all downhill from here. I just know it. It's all downhill from here, snot gushing out my nose as I weep myself into convulsions that get the Cocoplat and the few girls who can still stand me going. Coach Stan purses his lips, clicking his stopwatch on, then off.

Excerpted from Swimming by Nicola Keegan Copyright 2009 by Nicola Keegan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.