Souls adrift, seeking anchor

By Diane White
July 12, 2009
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Nicola Keegan’s novel about a young swimmer is enthralling. Gaynor Arnold’s historical fiction was inspired by the plight of Charles Dickens’s abandoned wife, Catherine. And Elisabeth Hyde sends readers on an excellent armchair adventure by raft, through the Grand Canyon.

In “Swimming,’’ her first novel, Keegan’s energy jumps off the page. Her lively, unorthodox style suits her unusual narrator, Philomena “Pip’’ Ash, a smart and smart-mouthed swimming prodigy, born in Kansas, in the mid-1960s. Her parents, desperate to find a way to tire their hyperactive infant, enroll her in an aqua babies class when she’s 10 months old. Instead of sinking, Philomena kicks, and she’s off, joyfully gliding through the water toward Olympic glory. It’s not a smooth journey. Her older sister succumbs to cancer; her father dies in a plane crash; another sister becomes addicted to drugs; her agoraphobic mother can’t cope with all the loss. At school Pip struggles to meet the expectations of demanding nuns. She grows into a gangling adolescent, more than 6 feet tall, with enormous feet. On land she’s awkward, insecure, self-loathing. In the water she’s a phenomenon. Under the tutelage of “super coach’’ Ernest Mankovitz she hones her skills, doggedly and painfully, turning her body into a powerful swimming machine.

“Swimming’’ is a wonderful coming-of-age story, a richly detailed account of a young woman channeling her rage, grief and insecurity into a passion to win. The voice Keegan has invented for Pip is sarcastic, thoughtful, elegant, irreverent. “Life is a series of complicated errors. Life is all about gliding through angles with curves. And I have proof, once again, that my mind cannot prepare my body for anything outside a pool, so I close my eyes and swim into sex in a ghostlike glide, knowing that with time this will be funny . . .’’ Eventually Pip learns that even Olympic medals can’t assuage her pain, and she is forced to confront her losses.

The “Girl in a Blue Dress’’ is Dorothea Gibson, wife of Alfred Gibson, the greatest novelist of the Victorian age, a fictional figure closely modeled on Charles Dickens. As the story opens, the internationally celebrated writer is being buried in Westminster Abbey as thousands gather outside in an orgy of public mourning. His wife of more than 20 years, excluded from the funeral, sits in the small house to which she’s been relegated and remembers her life with the self-styled “One and Only.’’ First-time novelist Arnold has “Dodo,’’ as Gibson nicknamed her, recall her courtship by the eager, high-spirited young writer, the happy early days of their marriage, their gradual estrangement as she grew stout and depressed after many pregnancies and births. Finally he banishes her from their home, cuts her off from her children, and secretly takes up with another girl in a blue dress, a willowy young actress.

Dorothea is an engaging narrator, a more sympathetic character than her husband with his egotism, his wild enthusiasms, his creepy fascination with “child-women.’’ Gaynor writes in an afterword that in this novel she tried to give voice to the “largely voiceless’’ Catherine Dickens, who asked that her letters from her husband be preserved so that “the world may know he loved me once.’’ One aspect of Dorothea’s voice is unconvincingly modern. Summoned to meet Queen Victoria, Dorothea asks her sovereign, “But does it not strike you as unfair, ma’am, that a simple question of one’s sex should confine one for ever to a particular sphere?’’ Worse yet is a wince-inducing supernatural interlude in which her late husband appears to her and asks her to write the ending of his unfinished novel. As Catherine’s story nears its end, she has all but transformed herself into a feminist, a New Woman. If you can manage to overlook Dorothea’s anachronistic, out-of-character, self-empowerment, “Girl in a Blue Dress’’ is an entertaining attempt to imagine an aspect of Dickens’s private life that remains something of a mystery.

Hyde was wise to include a list of characters at the start of “In the Heart of the Canyon’’ because it’s easy to confuse her Colorado River rafters, especially early in the novel, before she has fleshed out their diverse personalities. There’s Evelyn, a middle-aged Harvard biology professor nursing a broken heart. Mitchell, a know-it-all historian, appears to work at being obnoxious, especially to his meek wife, Lena. Amy, an obese 17-year old, is forever at odds with her fretting mother, Susan. Ruth and Lloyd, in their 70s, are making the last of many trips down the river, as Alzheimer’s is robbing Lloyd of his memory. Jill is trying to make the trip a memorable adventure for her passive-aggressive husband, Mark, and their two adolescent sons, who didn’t want to come. And Peter, a young unemployed cartographer, has been sent on the trip by his sister, who is tired of hearing him complain. Leading this 13-day passage is J.T. Maroney, a cool white-water guide who has made 125 trips through the Grand Canyon, and his assistants, Dixie and Abo. A stray dog joins the party and acquires a name, Blender, and his own life jacket.

Hyde vividly portrays both the wonders and horrors of white-water rafting. Anyone thinking of taking a similar trip would do well to read this. It’s set in July, and the rafters face heatstroke, dehydration, and sunburn, as well as rattlesnakes, scorpions, and other potentially dangerous wildlife. And, of course, there are the rapids, a challenge in any season. However, the most daunting obstacles are the conflicts, emotional and otherwise, among the rafters.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.


By Nicola Keegan

Knopf, 320 pp., $25.95


Crown, 432 pp., $25.99


By Elisabeth Hyde

Knopf, 336 pp., $25.95

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