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Splashy New Novel Dives Into Competitive 'Swimming'

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."

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.com among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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