From Publishers Weekly
Keegan takes on death, religion, relationships and coming-of-age in her gorgeously stylized and irreverent debut about a rising Olympic swimming star. Not even a year after Philomena Pip Ash is born in 1960s Middle America, her parents put their rambunctious infant in a pool and watch the remarkable sight of a nine-month-old gliding through the water. With some help from Olympic Supercoach Ernest K. Mankovitz, Pip becomes a mercenary swimming machine who wins an unprecedented collection of gold medals in three Olympic games. Though Pip's connection with water is preternaturally intense, she can't relate to people, a dilemma heightened by early encounters with death and her innate awareness of loathsome pain and insecurities. After going through a premature career climax and the subsequent plummet, Pip is forced to deal with emotions she's spent her life ignoring; her sarcastic (and f-bomb laden) musings provide many amusing turns, while Keegan's linguistic playfulness moves the story at a fast clip, even if it sometimes muddles what's going on—particularly toward the end. This is worth reading for the prose alone. (July)
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“Keegan’s energy jumps off the page. . . . 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.” —The Boston Globe
“Comic and celebratory, full of the narrator’s weird blend of goofiness and intelligence. . . . Marvelous. . . . You don’t have to be a swimmer to respond to this story.” —The Washington Post
“A ravishing first novel. . . .The obstacles Keegan has set in the way of Pip’s athletic triumph come by way of a tumultuous, estrogen-rich family . . . two memorably in-your-face girlfriends and a gaggle of steel-plated nuns. . . . Gorgeous.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious and exhilarating. . . . Gloriously, darkly intuitive. . . . A novel as fun and imaginative as Swimming
. . . deserves a medal.” —Time
“An exhilarating mix of talent and mastery. . . . Pip is a captivating narrator, bawdy, skittish and self-conscious, often emotionally raw. . . . Swimming
captures the arc of a great athlete’s career, from training to competition to the inevitable endpoint, filtered through the awareness of a sensitive woman whose world has been shattered by grief.” —Jane Ciabattari, NPR, “Books We Love”
“A fine debut novel about the making of an Olympic champ.” —People
[is] a joy and a testament to Keegan’s skills as a writer and storyteller, and will leave readers eager for more of her work as soon as it breaks the surface.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Young Pip relays her tale with such insight, you’l...
About the Author
divides her time between Ireland and France with her husband and three children.
From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Ron Charles Nicola Keegan's novel about a Kansas girl who swims her way to the Seoul Olympics sounds drearily good-natured and uplifting, but if that's what you're after, you should paddle back to the shallow end. This isn't like one of those sentimental biopics that give everybody a chance to go to the bathroom between the big races. Yes, the young heroine shatters records (and bones) and collects enough gold medals to fill a pirate's treasure chest, but she also discovers that beating a husky East German with a 5 o'clock shadow is easier than competing against hopelessness and death. That tension between exuberance and despair is what gives this novel such reckless buoyancy. It's there on the very first page, when Pip is a "problematic infant" at the pool with her family. Her nervous father dips her into the water and off she goes, to everyone's amazement. "All I know is that when I kick, it moves me," she says, "so I kick again, liberated from my fleshly prison of gravity. I am as I was, churning in deep archaic memory, naked, filled with free-floating fatness, the world murmuring outside with sweet deafened sounds that lull. I pop up, open my eyes; I learn to glide." It's a wonderful opening -- comic and celebratory, full of the narrator's weird blend of goofiness and intelligence -- but learning to glide turns out to be a lifelong process in some very rough waters, including a pummeling series of tragedies. Pip's family is a slow-moving disaster: One sister is dying of Hodgkin's disease, another is killing herself with heroin and a third is rejecting this world for Christ. What's worse, they're verbal pugilists, knocking one another around with wicked sarcasm and gallows humor. Their mother sinks deeper into agoraphobia while "the house takes on shadows that hold." It's no wonder that by the time Pip is 8, she's already flipping erratically from depression to delight. "Life is quiet and dusty and lonesome and I'm sick of it already," she says, but the pool offers relief: "I'm saturated in a deep, peaceful, perfectly entitled, one hundred percent natural love of life and all life's things." Keegan has a keen sense of how different it is to be a female athletic prodigy, particularly in the 1970s. Any boy who swam like this would be courted by coaches, adored by peers. But at 6 feet -- and growing! -- Pip is a middle-school freak, a "universally unpopular . . . sloppy-shouldered, small-breasted, strong-jawed, tall girl" whose strict Catholic school can't begin to nurture her. Much of the dark comedy here involves Pip's efforts to avoid the horrors at home, get the instruction she needs in the pool and figure out why she doesn't fit in with anyone. "My body is still refusing to accept the natural curse that unites all women, even nuns," she says. "I check every day, am still a girl. Worry gnaws at my innards." The success of this marvelous novel floats on that voice, ripe with adolescent wit and angst. ("It annoys me to have to breathe, so I don't.") For all its family dysfunction, international travel and athletic record-breaking, "Swimming" remains an unusually interior novel, contained entirely in Pip's discordant head. Even the dialogue is mediated by her voice, rendered only in italics, no quotation marks, sometimes slipping into shorthand and ellipses. This can feel a bit claustrophobic, as though we're missing a lot of what's happening outside her narrow attention. Moscow, Paris, Stanford University and other colorful locales are hard to see in much detail through the scrim of Pip's self-absorption, but if you've spent time around precocious teenagers (or been one), you'll recognize how true this sounds. And in any case, as a narrator Pip displays the same energy she shows as a preternaturally gifted athlete. This is a glimpse into the rarefied realm of Mount Olympus with the laurels stripped away -- the unending exhaustion and the strange existence of living in a body so finely tuned that a single doughnut can jam the gears and send everything spiraling out of control. You don't have to be a swimmer to respond to this story; you don't even have to be into sports (heck, I spent all of high school PE hiding in the marching band and I loved this book). Her description of the training regimen that begins once the right people become aware of her talent is completely absorbing. She moves into an alien world of single-minded super-coaches, chiropractors, nutritionists, herbalists, psychologists, hypnotists, reporters and media consultants. "Being an Olympian," she says with her typical deflating humor, "is like striding around an important cakewalk naked while everyone else is in their Sunday best." And, as it must, the book delivers some knockout scenes at the Olympics, enriched by Pip's quirky humor about her competitors and the media's inanity. What's most striking, though, are those moments of gold medal-winning victory. There's no trumpet-blowing triumphalism and no canned modesty either; instead, Pip's voice rises to the limits of articulation when she's overwhelmed by "a love of the lonesomeness of the lane, a love of the lonesomeness of the empty pool, a love of the lonesomeness of spent energy and hot pain, a love of all the things we had to do to get here. . . . I whoop a crazy gut whoop and deep love makes them whoop with me as life advances forward and our whoops catch and mingle together in the thick chlorine air." But wouldn't you know it, Olympic goddesses have troubles just like us mortals. "I'm still the same," Pip says, "tall, annoyed, loveless, and lonesome in a way I can't explain." It's a sign of Keegan's discipline that she doesn't allow Pip's record-breaking victories to solve or overshadow her spiritual anxieties, her unresolved conflicts with loved ones, living and dead. Long after the Olympic villages are dismantled and her 12 gold medals are stored away, the problem of how to live remains. And that race, Pip discovers, is more grueling than anything she's faced in the pool.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In Water I Float
I’m a problematic infant but everything seems okay to me. I’m sitting in Leonard’s arms grabbing at his nose. I have no idea how prehistoric my face is, am smiling a gaping, openmouthed smile that pushes the fat up around my eyes, causing a momentary blackout. When the world turns black, I scream. I’m blessed with unusual eyebrow mobility; when I scream, they scream with me. Leonard pats my back, bouncing me gently up and down; his face is tired and drawn and as green as the lime green paint the nuns use for their windowsills. I recover quickly, push his big nose in with all my force, have no idea that a perfect replica is sitting in the middle of my own face just waiting to grow.
I have seven chins varying in size and volume; crevasses things get stuck in that my mother has to excavate carefully after each bath. We have ceremonies: Each morning she leans in toward me with a cotton ball dipped in baby oil, two purple sandbags of fatigue carefully holding down her eyes, and each morning I karate-kick the open bottle of baby oil out of her hand. Today she burst into tears as the bottle whizzed past her ear, shooting a trail of shiny oil across the room. I wailed with her in loving solidarity, the fat above my ankles flapping over my monstrous feet like loose tights.
I live simply; when something doesn’t seem okay, I scream until it is again. I do not like closing my eyes to discover there is no music, lights, or people I know inside. I do not like being alone, being alone with Bron, finding myself in my bed alone, waking up in my car seat with no one in sight, the sound of silence. If I fall asleep listening to the beat of my mother’s heart, pacing my breath in cadence with hers, and awake later to find myself lying on my back in a pastel-barred prison, I feel cheated and betrayed. I howl with my guts in a belly-shaking rage until someone comes and gets me, usually my mother, who is shocked and worried at how her second child could be so different from the sleepy, button-nosed first. Day and night mean nothing to me. Leonard is trying to think; can’t.
We’re at the Quaker Aquatic Center waiting for my first aqua baby class to begin. My mother’s sitting at the edge of the pool, holding a shivering Bron, who’s studying me quietly, an intent expression on her oval face. She won’t get in and no one’s making her. I grab Leonard’s lips and pull; he taps my hand with one finger, whispers: Stop
. I can’t walk yet; he has to carry me everywhere and it’s starting to hurt his lower back. He yelled at my mother yesterday. What in the hell are you feeding her?
And she yelled back, hard. The same damn formula we gave Bron
. I look over at my mother; Bron has moved behind her and is holding on to her neck with a hand that suggests possession. She’s got one thumb in her mouth, eyes burning holes in my flabby face. I kick Leonard in the gut; he grunts. I jump a little bit, pointing toward Bron, gurgle, then speak. I’m trying to say: She means me harm.
Leonard says: Shoosh now; the nice lady is talking.
I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about so I kick him in the gut again, grab one of the long hairs that sprout from his eyebrows, pull.
There’s a lady coming at me with a mermaid puppet on one hand. The mermaid is saying goo things, but Bron has destroyed the joy of puppets for me forever. I try to get away from it by weeping dramatically as I crawl up Leonard’s shoulder and he scrambles to hold on. The lady is hailing me, but I don’t know her face, so I won’t look at it. She’s wearing a swimsuit with a skirt attached and a necklace with a bright yellow plastic smiley face in the middle. Leonard bounces me up and down. I wipe puppet from mind, swallow sobs, lunge for the smiley face. Leonard almost loses me, says: Whoooahhhh there
, a sharp satellite of pain pulsing in his lower back.
The lady says: She’s ready, all right.
Leonard says: You think?
She says: Oh yes.
He says: What should I do?
She clasps her hands. Let’s put her in.
He says: I hope this works.
She says: Oh, this’ll work. You’ll see. It will change your lif
He dips my feet into the warm water. I hop, squealing a high-pitched squeal that makes the lady jump. Oh my. I see what you’re talking about.
I’m nine months old and the longest I’ve slept at one time is one hour and forty-three minutes. I think my name is Boo, but it’s not. It’s just one of the many things I’ll be called: Boo, Mena, Phil, Pip
, but the name on my birth certificate has four syllables: Philomena
, and will be the first major disappointment in my life. No one will use it until I get to school and the nuns insist. I have various hobbies that consume me: kicking, screaming, pulling things down, kicking again, crying. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with howling like a wolf. I sit up in my crib three hours before dawn, grab the bars with both fists, and keen at the moon. I’ve started to pull myself around on the floor and, when no one is looking, roll myself up in electrical wire, get my fingers stuck in air-conditioning vents, and scream until someone yanks me out. Yesterday, I gnawed down half a candle, pooping it out this morning with horrible grunts as my mother wept: I just turned my head for a second.
Leonard’s trying to write Most Misunderstood Mammals
, which will be published at Roxanne’s birth and will win him the largest grant to study bats ever awarded in the history of American academia. He will be pictured on the cover of the Glenwood Morning Star
standing next to Rosy, a cuddly African fruit-faced bat with wide, dreamy eyes. He knows that his work is good, but at the moment he’s just tired and poor, sleeping in his ratty old car with a pillow over his head when he can’t take the screaming anymore. When he gets the grant, he will celebrate with his bat team, astronomer Gerald, Ahmet Noorani, and Dr. Bob, and then he’ll fly all over the world studying bat behavior, coming back home with a burnt nose and a collection of exotic bowls things will get lost in. I will do things too. I will be ashamed of his job, pretend he’s a regular doctor until the mini-Catholics turn into junior Catholics and find out he’s the guy in the dumb suit that Channel 9 interviews every Halloween. They’ll call me Batgirl, draw ears on my locker and all the school pictures I ever hand out until the day I win my first Olympic gold and they repent.
Leonard slides me in up to my belly; there are spaces in my diaper that let the warm water leak in. This makes me so happy, I squeal. I look over at my mother; she’s clapping her hands and making goo sounds. She’s pregnant again because I took so long coming that she and Leonard decided they’d better have the rest of their children quickly, bam, bam, bam
. When Leonard said bam, bam, bam
, he’d hit one open palm with the side of the other, a gesture I will soon come to dread. She’d agreed with him at the time, has changed her mind since, but doesn’t know it because she’s too tired to articulate thought. I look at Bron and my two eyebrows become one. She’s been poking me through the bars of my crib with her Barbie. She’s been pinching me hard with vicious claws. She pretends to be nice when they’re around, but reveals her true face when they’re not looking. She tries to scare me with it, and succeeds; I howl. At the howl, Mom and Leonard look at each other and frown as Bron smiles. I am one of those people who will never truly grasp the relationship between time and space. I tried to hit her from my high chair across the room as she played with her Barbies this morning, her hair lit in long golden shafts by the narrow winter light. I howled in frustration when my fist hit air and not her head as Mom and Leonard exchanged glances, unspoken worry darkening their eyes.
The lady with the face I don’t know yet whispers: Just let her go.
Leonard gets nervous. I don’t think I can.
The lady says: Trust me. She’s ready to go
and he lets me go.
I sink into warmth for a second, go into natural apnea. My eyes open wide with shock; this is new, but it’s blue and not black so I stand it. I kick a little bit; it moves me. My diaper absorbs water, puffing out like one of those kinds of fish. It slides slowly down my thighs, eventually tangling itself between my knees. I kick again; my diaper falls off and I bob to the surface like a cork. Leonard says: Wow! That was . . . should I put a diaper on her?
The lady thinks for a moment, twiddling the puppet. No, let’s just watch her for a second. She seems . . .
I look at him, and the sounds that come out of my mouth mean: Hey! Where are we? What’s going on here?
When he doesn’t answer, I insist Dah? Dah?
as I go under. He says: She just called me Dad. Did you hear her? She just said Dad.
My mother claps; Bron squints. Leonard’s happiness vibrates through the water; it helps speed me along.
All my life, I will kick things that find their way into my path: shoes, baskets, toilet paper rolls, money, rocks, tennis balls, rolled-up socks, gym bags, Roxanne once or twice, any kind of circular fruit. It will become an irresistible urge that serves me well. I kick; it moves me, and I feel joy. I have no idea that I’m floating in the center of Glenwood, that Glenwood is floating in the middle of Kansas, that Kansas is a simple state, a safe distance from the other, more complicated ones. I do not know that my mind is an ocean, collecting things that sift down through the sunlight, the twilight, the midnight, the abyssal zones to the...