Like most people, I’ve been tempted at times to get away from it all, to simply up sticks and leave my old life behind (given that I struggle to get out of the house most days, that’s unlikely to become reality any time soon). For some people, though, the urge to get away is far more pressing, and today’s choice looks at a group of young women who do decide to make a clean break. However, as we will see, getting away is no guarantee of happiness, especially when you’re frequently reminded of what you left behind…
Finnish writer Cristina Sandu’s The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (translated by the author, review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications) begins with a scene from the lives of six young women as they mess about by the river. We find ourselves in a poor land, possibly a Soviet republic, and soon learn how the men leave to look for work and the women toil in the local cigarette factory, dreaming of a better life.
Yet after a mere matter of pages, the scene changes, and we’re off to Helsinki, following one of the young women as she enters into a relationship with an unusual young man. And this is how the novel is to unfold, with short sections set in the women’s home country sandwiching tales of their life overseas, showing what became of them after their escape. You might think they’d be happy now that their dreams of the west have become reality, but that’s certainly not the case for all of them, with at least one ready to come home.
Sandu’s novel is a fairly short affair, a book you could easily devour in couple of sittings, and the structure, alternating between the brief scenes in the women’s home country and their later lives, only assists in this. While it’s obvious from the start that the main story, showing how six country girls throw themselves into the sport of synchronised swimming, overcoming their disadvantages to become their homeland’s great sporting hope, is moving towards their defection, our interest is less in the result than in the process:
The coach didn’t wipe his face, wet from the splashing water. Watching the performance – mesmerising despite its flaws – he felt the blood course through his limbs and penis, reinvigorating it to the point of rigidity. Suddenly, the water of the pool looked inviting to him, too.
p.56 (Scribe Publications, 2021)
As they work to achieve their aims, the women turn from ugly ducklings into beautiful swans before our eyes, ready to leave their old lives behind.
It’s the filling in the sandwich that tells us what happened when the girls made their escape, in the form of six short stories, mere snapshots of their subsequent lives. In a few short pages, in scenes taking place around the world, Sandu shows us how the women’s lives have changed, not always for the better. This can be seen most clearly in Betty’s tale, where she chats to fellow gamblers at a poker table in a resort casino, telling her story of poverty and prostitution, before a twist in the tale shows her spiralling deeper into misfortune.
Even when things haven’t got quite that bad, the women still have problems in day-to-day life, often to do with integration. In the Pyrenees, Sandra is mocked for her poor accent by a man who gives her a lift, and Paulina’s weekend boat trip off the coast of California only drives home just how much of a stranger she really is. Meanwhile, over in Rome, Nina is more optimistic after waking up with the conviction that her language skills have suddenly blossomed:
Her lips, which have grown accustomed to silence since her arrival in this country, now feel supple. Words do not come to her from the outside, but from within, whole and ready. The articles slip into their places effortlessly: they don’t make her stutter, but drip from her lips. The endings of words, which are forever changing in her mother tongue, straighten. Diminutives, usually everywhere, fade. (p.77)
As the day passes, however, her mood changes. You see, now that she understands the language better, she sees the world more clearly, realising that there are certain things she’s failed to understand about the people around her.
It’s little wonder, then, that the women tend to think of home, even if they have a curious relationship with their country and language. When Anita starts her relationship with a fellow countryman in Helsinki, she decides to keep her origins a secret, unwilling to admit that they share a common tongue. It’s a strange situation, where she feels both attracted to and repelled by all that reminds her of where she came from.
It’s the last of the women, Lydia, that makes the decision to go back, one you suspect all the women have considered. The final tale sees her returning to ‘the Near Side of the River’, hoping to find peace after years in exile, but, unsurprisingly, it isn’t quite that easy. Her return and what she finds there remind her of why she left in the first place. It may be home, but that doesn’t mean she’s left all her problems behind…
The Union of Synchronised Swimmers is a short, engaging read, and Sandu has done an excellent job on both the story and her English version. There’s a lot to like about these sketches of women in exile, struggling to make a new life for themselves and to block out the memories of their old one. If I have one criticism, it’s that it’s all a little too short at times. In effect, what we have here are six stories tied together with seven quick sketches of the women’s background, and these pieces, entertaining as they are, fizzle out almost before they’ve begun.
Still, that’s just a personal view, and I’m sure other readers will enjoy the fleeting nature of the stories. Sandu’s novel is certainly an interesting take on the nature of migration and leaving your homeland behind, even if it leaves the reader with more questions than answers. It shows us that whether you jet off to a new job, or sneak across the border in your swimming gear, the mere fact of reaching a new country doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll live happily ever after.