Magdalena receives a letter from a cousin she can't remember, a Katarina who lives in America. The letters are more than just a child wanting to reconnect with her family, as hidden messages are included to tell the family left behind about uncle Marin who is no longer living with the rest of his Croatian family. Magdalena tells her little sister Jadranka about their cousin as well, and through the letters, they both come to feel more jealousy than anything else. When Katarina shows up one summer for vacation, the iceberg of family secrets starts to show - and Magdalena will do everything she can to protect Jadranka from the small island gossip.
*I received a free ARC of The First Rule of Swimming from Little, Brown via Netgalley in exchange of an honest review*
The First Rule of Swimming is a haunting, beautiful and fragile tale of two sisters, their mother, their cousin and their grand-father. The action takes place between a small island in Croatia – Rosmarina – and New York, as part of the family fled during the cold war, in order to escape imprisonment. The way both parts of the family suffered from this separation, their fears, their new knowledge, and the fact that they no longer could stay in contact was truly heart-breaking.
Hidden among the story of this Croatian family is both the bond between the two sisters, Jadranka and Magdalena, and the family secrets that are so huge it might just destroy them all if it all came out and got propagated through their small island community. The story is complex, shifting to let the readers know more about different characters in an expert way. There are no difficulties following the different characters, as the narrative is in third person, rather, the readers get to know snippets from each character that the other characters do not necessarily know.
The First Rule of Swimming is not a story about learning to swim, although this is important, and the girls’ grandfather has been teaching the girls in his family to swim ever since several women drowned because they hadn’t seen the need to know how to swim. In order to swim, first, one needs to be able to float! And this is true for life as well – and this elegant metaphor is what stitches the different characters’ stories together through the whole narrative.
The glimpses into the characters’ pasts through their thoughts, or in grandfather Luka’s case while he is not completely conscious after suffering a stroke, is so well done it never feels forced. How the past is then included to color the present, especially in the cases of Magdalena and Jadranka is so realistic, as is the real fear the older generation has for authority due to what happened during the communist reign and the war among the countries ethnicities after the cold war.
As the characters travel both to new places and back to their pasts in their minds, in order to unravel their own mysteries, the readers are taken around for a hauntingly beautiful ride – where the truth can both set the characters free and destroy them. At first, I loathed Ann, Magdalena’s and Jadranka’s mother, however, when I came to realize the reason behind her actions, I grudgingly had to admire her courage and her loyalty.
The First Rule of Swimming touches on many different subjects, and some of them are very much present for a lot of people in the present. Leaving everything known and loved behind in order to stay safe – only to be haunted by nightmares – both about things that have taken place and those that could have been possible has left most of the characters fractured. However, through the love they share with their new families, or for their work, they are able to mend the worst fractures on their own, before a reunion and a return to the sources can take place. Also, the way dealing lovingly with parents or siblings can be so difficult sometimes is beautifully sketched out, through both memories and new interactions.
I will definitely check out other books by Courtney Angela Brkic, I love the prose, and even when the subject matter is difficult, the beauty of the writing brings the reader safely through the story.
Jadranka swallowed. She wondered if this was what growing old meant for everyone: a variation of the same grotesque film, the scenes cobbled together from the bleakest moments of any given life. She found the idea unbearable.
“Don’t think you can leave me behind, old man,” she had told him once, so fiercely that Magdalena did not know whether to smile or weep in the dark.
How strange, he would think, that there should be exactly the same weightlessness at the end as there was in the beginning. I had forgotten it completely.
The first rule of swimming, he had told her, was to stay afloat. He had demonstrated by lying back in the water, buoyed by the warm currents on the surface.
The problem, he thought, was that they had watched too much television and believed in softer lives in other places.