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Have you ever thought to yourself that swimming all year round would be a good idea? Neither had I, until Annette Lees’s charming collection of diary entries, tales and interviews with swimmers persuaded me of the wonders it could work on your physical health, mental health and appreciation for New Zealand’s beauty.
Part diary, part non-fiction stories with a splash of science, Swim opens with a classic swimming-related pun (‘Diving in’) and tells the story of a normal woman, Annette Lees, who, almost accidentally, decides to swim every day for a year. It begins as a commitment to swim all summer and slowly extends until it becomes a year-long effort.
The book is divided into beautiful seasonal sections which helps break up the year’s records of swimming. Her daily swims are described in diary entry format, which I became surprisingly invested in as the book went on. They share details of the weather, the water, and snippets of conversation with people she meets. Some she even manages to convince to swim – ‘He grabs his girlfriend by the hand – ‘Let’s go for a swim,’ he yells.’ There are many places where I now want to swim, and one thing I would have loved to see is a map with the swims marked on.
Woven amongst these daily swims are collected stories: anything and everything to do with New Zealanders swimming. From competitive swimming to historical swims to government swim campaigns, these well-referenced stories offer insights into New Zealand’s incredible history with swimming. Interviews with swimmers from various backgrounds made swimming seem more accessible and left me in awe of the amazing things that New Zealanders do when they set their minds to it. Arno Marten, for example, describes his attempt to swim from Milford Sound 450 kilometres down to Te Waewae Bay. Swimming is far more ingrained in the New Zealand culture than I ever bothered to think about, but I am glad that Swim gave me a reason to do so.
Although initially a little hard to get in to, before long I was avidly awaiting the next adventurous tale. Lees has a deliciously dry and witty writing style, which I would just begin to miss before another comment proved that her humour had simply been waiting for the right moment to resurface. She has truly mastered the art of finishing with a bang: each story ends almost abruptly, in a way that adds to the story rather than completes it.
Swim is a beautiful book. Unfortunately, it was let down by its clear lack of thorough proofreading. It was hard to appreciate the beauty of the book as an object when I was overwhelmed by the number of obvious errors, especially in the middle third of the book.
Lees’s descriptions of swimming are glorious: ‘the sensuous feeling of water on the skin, or the giddy happiness, freedom and contentment that steals into the soul when bathing.’ Between the imagery, the fascinating stories and the personal accounts, any reader will truly be immersed in an appreciation of swimming.
Reviewed by Francesca Edwards
by Annette Lees
Published by Potton & Burton