Review: Swimming with Seals (Victoria Whitworth)

sorrellstones
Julia Sorrell – Stones of Stenness (via)

I really want to compare reading Victoria Whitworth’s immersive, liquid prose to an exhilarating swim in the North Atlantic. Each wave is heralded by a tiny, crested Pictish beast — the essence of cetacean, as the author beautifully describes it — no, a pair of the beasts, flanking a dreamy paragraph of description, each wave begun with a morning on a shivery, light-infused stretch of sand. There are no chapters, no chronology in particular, just expertly interwoven memories and descriptions, separated by the short accounts she’s been writing of her morning swims on a remote Orkney beach. Some waves are bigger than others; some go deeper, and are consequently more frightening. But I’ve never been a good swimmer, whereas I felt quite at home in Whitworth’s confident, personal narrative.

Swimming with Seals is a memoir, a narrative of nature and the seasons, and a circling, cautious stalking of the abyss; of our fear of death. Whitworth swims to find herself again, driven from the land by excruciating plantar fasciitis — Ariel in reverse — re-learning to be herself, in herself, through sensuous, sometimes fearful encounters with the sea and its inhabitants. Orcas haunt the edges of her writing, as they haunt the edges of her vision in the sea, representing the unknowable end that we all must come to terms with. There is a lot that Whitworth thinks is best seen through peripheral vision; indirectly. She works through her own mother’s death in the book, scrutinising her response to it, picking inevitably away at recurrences and patterns in her life — like Charcot island, named by the son of the man who discovered the disease that caused her mother’s death, which finally became an island instead of an archipelago in the years after her mother’s death. Whitworth is aware of our tendency to seek out patterns; it’s with a wry, knowing smirk that you imagine her leading you through the patterns she nonetheless cannot help but discern.

Medieval themes and a frustrated attempt to get to know God run through the book too. She is frank about her approaches to both, like the scholar that she is, but she also shares her vivid novelist’s imagination with us; again, clear-eyed pragmatism runs hand-in-hand with the thoughtful, longing possibility of knowing something, or someone, that is utterly inaccessible. Yet Whitworth succeeds in making it seem, momentarily, eminently accessible. What a treat.

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