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3.6 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 26 April 2010
The village of Orford, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk is not used to foreigners. Someone's killing animals by slitting their throats, and everyone is concerned about terrorists in their midst.

Ria, a poet, lives in relative isolation in her late father's cottage by the coast in Suffolk - it's home. Eric, a neighbouring farmer, is like a surrogate father to her, having taken her eel-fishing since she was a child. Now single, she enjoys being on her own with with few distractions apart from her bothersome brother and his family arriving for an annual trip. Jack is always on at her to sell the house, so he can have his half, but Ria won't - they've feuded over this for years. Then one day she sees the swimmer...

Ben is an illegal immigrant - a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the area via Moscow. He's living and working on a nearby farm while his application for asylum is being processed. Ben is a medic who plays jazz piano and despite an eighteen year difference in their ages, they fall for each other and begin tentative steps towards a relationship - then tragedy happens. I won't tell you any more of the story, but as the book moves on we meet other women in Ben's life including his mother Anula, and they take on the tale.

With her artist's eye, Roma has conjured up a compelling vision of the landscape once again. In her previous book, Brixton Beach, the Sri Lankan coast came to life, and the same is so here for the rivers, marshes and pebbly beaches of Suffolk - she has a great affinity to seascapes. The characters are strongly drawn too, but none more so than Eric - who is a rock. He understands; he has his own sadness, but uses it to help others, and he provides continuity throughout the book.

This is a sad book, yet there is hope too. I enjoyed it immensely, and in my hour of need would wish to have someone like Eric to be there for me. The story highlights the frustrations and distrust experienced by illegal immigrants who have had to flee their own country, definitely something to make one think. I can't imagine what it must have been like for Ben and other asylum-seekers arriving hidden in a lorry. But he had to escape Jaffna or risk being rounded up and shot in the still ongoing war in his home country. Somehow though, you sense that this dramatic move has set him free to find a new home - which is another theme weaving through this book.

This was an super read and I can highly recommend it.
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on 9 June 2017
I loved this book. It made cry. Beautifully woven text to result in a heartbreaking but hopeful tale of love and loss.
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on 12 December 2010
The backdrop to this novel is the landscape of the County of Suffolk with its rivers and marshes, bordering the East Coast of England, lovingly described by Tearne with a painter's eye. She tells us about the eels which inhabit the rivers, "the length of bootlaces and the colour of green glass". The Kindle edition enables one to search the book, and I can tell you that there are seventy references to eels here! The eel is a "swimmer" which migrates from the Sargasso Sea to the the rivers of Europe, but the principal swimmer in the book is Ben, a young Sri Lankan man who also ends up in Suffolk (No, he didn't swim all the way). Ben is a refugee or illegal immigrant depending on one's point of view.

Tearne is never one to shirk a difficult theme, and the theme of this book is grief, and how one copes with it or does not cope with it. There are four deaths in the book, and at least four people grieving for these deaths. A young girl grieves for her father, a middle-aged woman grieves for her lover, another young girl grieves for her mother, and an old man grieves for two deaths. Out of this painful material Tearne has fashioned a compelling story.

The book is in three sections like a symphony: An idyllic first section, a slow and painful second one, and a surprising and moving finale. If you are into serious reading, don't miss this.
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VINE VOICEon 9 October 2011
The Swimmer is a beautifully written novel by Roma Tearne set in the small English town of Orford in Suffolk. It's the story of Ria, a forty-three-year-old poet, and Ben, a young refugee from Sri Lanka.

Ria is a single woman who lives alone in Eel House, a cottage which once belonged to her uncle. She's quite happy to be there on her own; if she needs company there's Eric, an older man from the neighbouring farm, and her brother and his family visit occasionally too - although these visits aren't entirely welcome. Sometimes, though, life can be lonely for Ria. After a few failed relationships in the past she's almost given up hope of finding someone to love...until she discovers Ben swimming in the river behind her house.

Ben, a Tamil refugee, left Sri Lanka to escape from the violence there. His asylum application has not yet been processed and so he's living and working in Britain as an illegal immigrant. Although he's eighteen years younger than Ria and from an entirely different background, the two begin to fall in love.

I really liked the first section of this book and enjoyed watching Ria and Ben's relationship slowly develop. I thought the rest of the novel would continue in the same way, but then something happened which I wasn't prepared for. The plot started to go in another direction, there was a new narrator to get used to, and I felt as if I was reading a completely different book to the one I had been expecting. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, though; the second part of the book was interesting, moving and relevant and the narrator was a more passionate person than Ria. The third, and shortest, section of the book also switches narrator and again took me by surprise. Although I found the third narrator difficult to like, I thought seeing things from this person's point of view helped to pull the story together and set up a perfect ending to the book.

I was impressed by Roma Tearne's wonderfully descriptive writing and the way she portrayed the hot summer days in Orford and the Suffolk landscape with its marshlands and rivers. I particularly liked the references to the eels in the rivers which migrate from the Sargasso Sea ('swimmers', like Ben). But at times there was too much description, too much detail, which made the story move at a very slow pace.

I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book because before I started it I wasn't sure if it would be for me. I can imagine that if you've read a lot of other novels about immigration and refugees you might find this book unoriginal and contrived, but I haven't read much fiction on this subject so The Swimmer did leave me with a few things to think about.
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on 27 February 2012
The Swimmer deals with a lonely poet living in Suffolk who falls for a visitor to her river. Unfortunately the peace of the countryside has been shattered by a series of grizzly animal killings. Suspicion falls on immigrants, fuelling the fire of the Far Right.

Ria is a forty-something virtual recluse living in her aunt and uncle's house in the countryside in Suffolk. Divorced and estranged from her brother, Ria lives a lonely, but peaceful life as she tries to finish her latest anthology. She has suffered a lot, with the premature death of her beloved father, unable to properly grieve as her family preferred to keep their stiff upper lip. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of resentment. Her younger brother is a bully prone to mood swings, and he is especially unhappy that Ria won't sell the house, and thus is depriving him of his share of the cash.

Ben is the titular swimmer, an illegal immigrant working locally while he waits for his paperwork to come through. He travelled all the way from war-torn Sri Lanka in the hope of a better life. His life is like many immigrants, working as a labourer despite being highly educated, and missing home all the while.

Ria notices that food in her house is missing and at first blames the cleaner until, one night, she sees Ben swimming across the river at the bottom of her property. The unlikely pair strike up a friendship, the lonely poet and the foreign farmhand. Both are educated and artistic, she writes while he plays the piano. They seem to fill a void in each other's life, a connection than transcends age or nationality.

If life were simple, then the book would end here, but their idyll is threatened by Ria's brother and the unsolved crimes. As you read, you hope for peace for the characters, for themselves, but making peace with the past is easier said than done. I did enjoy The Swimmer, with its topical themes and almost local setting (my parents live across the water in Essex). The only drawback is a bit of a rushed ending, while the reader appreciates the closure the ending brings, I was left wanting more.

(I would give this 7/10, but no half stars here)
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on 18 October 2016
My greatest problem with this, and I'm surprised that I seem to be the first one to mention it, is the heavy handed overly politicised nature of the narrative. It seems that the author wanted to write a piece of pro refugee propaganda, and whilst she achieved it in spades, it detracts from the value and worth of the novel. To excuse the pun, it has been written in such black and white terms. There is next to no shades of grey, no real life nuances, no balance or understanding of opposing views. And that's a shame, and as such means the book pales in comparison with the far more sophisticated works of the likes of Salmon Rushide, VS Naipaul or Zadie Smith.

So basically anyone and everyone who holds traditional, right-wing or Conservative views are portrayed as being racist. But not only are they racists, but by being right wing they naturally display all kinds of other awful character traits such as being spiteful, rude, condescending, gossiping etc. the list goes on. The brother for example is a thinly veiled Nigel Farage on steroids who not only disapproves of horrible foreigners, but of course is also a nasty capitalist intent on destroying local businesses, making vast and selfish profits in his business and destroying the environment with his schemes to boot. He is horrible to his wife and spoilt children; he is of course horrible to our loveable liberal intellectual poet, Ria. On reading this brother's portrayal, I was given pause to think about the recent EU referendum result, especially the main thrust of it being that great swaths of the country voted against the received patrician metropolitan view. It does seem the Roma Terne is one such bastion of Islington society, wholly out of touch with how people in places such as Suffolk think or feel. And I think it is insulting to such people in that they are painted in such a disparaging way. (The one local painted in a nice way, Eric the eel farmer, is of course left wing himself, I would imagine rather improbably considering he is a rural farmer, but there you go.)

Ria herself is not painted without her flaws, and she particularly gets on the nerves of the swimmer's mother. But these faults are merely faults of character rather than view, she is rather shy or she is depressed for example. These flaws do not outweigh the overriding narrative that her views are correct. We are led to believe that her leading and biased views, which it must be said go unchallenged by anyone but her neo-Nazi brother, are the right and correct ones and the only views that could be said for any decent person. Such views are continued by her daughter after her death. And they are that Britain is full of racist people. Britain is populated by rude and stupid Soviet style bureaucracies that are there merely to frustrate and destroy people's hopes and futures. The police are racists and violent etc.

Some examples:
1. On a train, an old man is asked to produce his senior citizen card with his ticket. He fails to do so and is therefore given a fine. All the other characters confirm that we are living in a 'Kafkaesque' country. There is no challenge whatsoever to this notion that because the ticket inspector is just doing his job, he is some sort of functionary in a Soviet system. There is no counter argument made that the retired gentleman should take some responsibility for the fact that he did not bring his senior citizen card when it was the condition of his travel. There was no point therefore made that it might be his fault.

2. Of course bureaucrats can be difficult, they can be rude and insensitive, such is human nature. I have no problems with that being portrayed. And yes, that Ria was delayed at the immigration, I can understand her frustration. But again we are straight away given this sledge hammer opinion, this black and white portrayal as fact. So because she is a bureaucrat (and therefore part of the racist system), the woman is of course ugly and horrible. And then because she says that Ria doesn't have with her the necessary documents, she is unable to proceed. Now this is understandably frustrating given that the website was down, the phones were engaged when she tried to get the information of what she should bring prior to coming to London. But ultimately she should have found out what was needed. That ultimately was her responsibility. It's hard to believe that the website would be down for more than a few hours, what with it being a government department. But beyond that, there would be countless websites that would give you the information. There would be charities and refugee/immigration consultants who would be able to provide all the information that she would need. So why did she not contact them and make sure she was prepared for this vital time spent at the immigration centre? Ria is an intellectual Cambridge graduate. Are we supposed to believe that all of this is beyond her? All we are fed is the line that we are being oppressed by the nasty system, and that this poor woman is helpless in its wake.

3. On the train, the academic sees a black man being escorted off the train by some policeman. Naturally she wonders what will happen to him. Why? I presume because as he is black and this is Britain, so obviously the man will be beaten up back at the station.

Beyond these examples, the whole premise of the story is that the system is against refugees. Perhaps it is, but it isn't challenged for what it is, and that's the problem. So we have this Tamil Sri Lankan man who has been portrayed as if he is the only refugee in the country. Actually it would seem that he has beamed down from Mars as for the reactions to him are taken. Has the author never been to Tooting in London? There are thousands of Tamils there. So why doesn't the academic just sensibly contact someone from such a place, from a Tamil contact centre, a refugee support centre, and let them help. But no, it would seem this is the Edwardian period whereby someone from Sri Lanka would be treated with such incredulity and awe, and that anyone and everyone who isn't a left-wing intellectual is a violent moronic racist.

I also think it's a problem that the refugee is a perfect man. Clever, sensitive, a great pianist. I'm not sure what it is the author is trying to say here. Yes of course it is possible that a refugee can be such a person, but by characterising him in such a way, it also implies that this is what refugees are, and of course not all are. Is she also trying to imply that he is worth rescuing because he is all of these things? And what if he wasn't? Wouldn't that have been a much better more nuanced book? How about the academic takes pity on him and wants to help, even though he's not that attractive, he doesn't play Chopin blindfolded and isn't in Mensa. How about a book that is more nuanced overall. That sometimes people who are Conservative minded (as in vote for the party), or who even vote UKIP, can be sensitive and nice decent people that might have some pearls of wisdom underneath what can seem cold and frosty exteriors. How about this refugee being yes, someone worth fighting for, someone to support as a fellow human being, but as someone with real flaws, who isn't perfect, and who is one of many as opposed to being put on a pedestal as being the perfect man.
Of course it is right and proper that racists should be challenged. Of course it is right and proper that any humane country should look after those in genuine need of protection. But that isn't the same as arguing that anyone who has concerns with cheap labour bringing down wages or with young men roaming around and breaking into their property, is a racist. And that's the problem right throughout the book.
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VINE VOICEon 23 July 2011
I have read two of Roma Tearne's previous novels so I was not expecting this to be a particularly joyful read. Never-the-less, the tragedy referred to in the book's blurb occurs so early on in the narrative that it left me reeling, wondering how it could redeem itself. I did manage a few tears of joy at the end but the majority of the book is truly sad. Having said that, I enjoyed it, but then I am a bit of a morbid reader.

The main character is 43 year old Ria who is a bit of a loner following the loss of her much loved father while she was still young. She has inherited his cottage on the Fens of Norfolk, where she is living alone, working as a poet, when she starts to be aware of a presence around her house. She is understandably nervous, given the recent killing of animals and suspicion of illegal immigrants in her area.
Ben is a young refugee from Sri Lanka, having escaped the purging of the Tamils by travelling in a lorry via Moscow. He is a qualified doctor in his home country but has had to work in Britain as a farm worker to survive.
Ria and Ben form an unlikely alliance, given their different backgrounds and huge difference in age - then the tragedy strikes.

There are a number of other vivid characters who are also introduced - Rias's bully of a brother and his family, Ben's mother, but most of all, Eric, an elderly farming man from the Fens who catches eels from the river at the end of Ria's garden and who has known her since she was a child. It is Eric who holds the whole story together, though at times he is a bit too good to be true.

Tearn is an excellent author on the themes of expatriation and the struggles of the Tamils in Sri Lanka but there is so much tragedy and death in the story, both past and present, that you'd have to be in a strong frame of mind to read this. It is, however, slightly lifted by the vivid descriptions of the harsh Norfolk countryside.

The audible version was well read by Patience Tomlinson. My only complaint would have been that she read the thoughts of Ben's Mother, Anula, with an English accent and then used a slight accent for her spoken word. I would have preferred all of this to have been accented, preferably by a native speaker.
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on 21 July 2014
I found this story interesting but overall quite depressing. There is no lightness at all until the very end when it gave you hope for a better future for the characters. Having said that I did enjoy reading it, it has the authors usual descriptive style which I love. If this had been the first book I read from this author it wouldn't make me look for more of her work which would be a shame because for me it isn't nearly as good as others of her books I have read.
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on 30 March 2013
Ria, poet, is living in a Suffolk village, in the house left to her by her uncle. Her brother, Jack, political activist, wants her to sell the house and split the proceeds with him. Their sibling relationship has been deeply troubled since the death of their father.

The normally peaceful village is aghast at the recent incidents of animals having their throats slit.

One swelteringly hot summer's evening Ria sees a swimmer in her stretch of the river. The swimmer emerges from the river, dresses, and walks through her garden. Another day they meet, and a relationship develops, despite a large difference in their ages and cultural backgrounds. Ben is from Sri Lanka, a Tamil, and is seeking political asylum in Britain, away from the persecution of Tamils back home.

There is an interesting interplay between the main characters and friends and villagers. When tragedy strikes it has long term repercussions for many.

A great read!
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on 2 July 2013
Roma writes with passion about her country of birth,Sri Lanka and a country that I love as well. I was pleased to see the end of the troubles and return on a regular basis something that Roma cannot do. The novel is so believable it must be based on her life and experience ,knowing Sri Lanka makes the story almost personal.
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