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Book cover

Swimming the Channel
Sally Friedman

Swimming the Channel
Sally Friedman
Secker & Warburg

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UK Edition: Amazon.co.uk

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The summary on the inside cover of Sally Friedman’s book tells the prospective reader that she is a keen swimmer and wanted to swim the English Channel from an early age. The day before she planned to leave for Britain, her husband Paul dies in a road accident. Reading the book itself won’t leave you much better informed than that, although, despite the title, Sally never actually makes the attempt. Don’t read that last sentence if you were looking forward to any plot twists.

Read to the halfway point marked by Paul’s death and you have got a users guide to obsession. If normal for you is spending most of your waking life submersed in water then you’ll no doubt laugh and cry at her stories of length times and marathon swims. Sally states that ‘it is virtually impossible for a non-swimmer (defined as someone who has to breath when doing a length of a pool) to understand how comfortable I am in water, how sure of myself’. The fault may lie more with the author than the non- swimmer. For instance, Sally becomes the first person to complete the 15 mile swim from Rhode Island to Long Island, and although we do learn that Sally is prone to sea- sickness when not actually in the water, the language fails to involve the reader, who is left with impression that the endeavour was no more than repetitive, boring and cold. Indeed, long distance swimming appears to come under the definition of pleasure whereby one repeatedly bangs one’s head against a brick wall because its nice when it stops. Thus the reader is treated to a blow by blow account of Sally’s accomplishment.

Sally’s enjoyment of her job as a scenic artist on movie sets is in creating from scratch the past that will complement the story. One suspects therefore, that the depiction of perfect Paul owes less to how it was, and more to how it should be remembered. Every living moment was touched by their love for each other. There were none of the fights or slanging matches more common to marriages. He was handsome and had a moustache (which suited him). He was good with his hands – he built stage sets – and she planned to give him a chainsaw for his 33rd birthday. He was, however, a Republican and not Jewish, but she doesn’t mind. Marrying late and dying young, they probably never had the chance to experience their love grow old and habitual. He understood her desire to swim and assisted in her training for the English Channel, although one suspects more in the hope that she might finally get it out of her system.

The real strength of the book develops after Paul’s death. It is expected that Sally, in the model of all American hero, will swim the Channel as a memorial to her husband and as ‘personal therapy’. It is perversely more impressive that she doesn’t, but instead retreats into an introspective and solitary depression, haunted by the fact that in wanting to get on with life she is abandoning her husband. My sympathy for her steadily increased from the point when she announces that ‘I watched people cross the street and I thought ‘you look like a jerk, why should you make it to the other side?’, and was touched by her attempts to love again and the hurt she suffers.

Perhaps we should forgive the fact that Paul does not seem real to us, because in representing all that was good about life, Paul the person no longer seems real even to her. Less forgivable, however, is the generalisation that ‘Great Britain was always cold and we were always hungry there’ or the assertion that her loss was like swimming with a canoe tied to her ankle.

Reviewed by Rupert Saper


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