Assisted dying isn’t the easiest theme to explore but it was what attracted me to New Zealand writer Chloe Lane’s The Swimmers set over a long holiday weekend in which a daughter visits the family home for the first time. We know within a few pages that Erin’s terminally ill mother has asked her sister to help her end her life before it becomes unendurable.
We were too used to having only the other around. Our space was small, hermetically sealed, only for two.
Twenty-six-year-old Erin lived with her mother in Wellington until she left for Auckland, taking up an internship at a gallery to help fund her PhD. Her married lover dumped her just before the long Queen’s Birthday weekend and it’s on the way to the Moore family home that her Aunty Wyn broaches the subject of Helen’s request. Erin and her mother have always disparaged Wyn who never ventured from the family farm, feeling themselves superior, but it’s Wyn who’s taken Helen in and cared for her. Both Wyn and Helen were competitive swimmers, Wyn the star whose ambitions were frustrated, and Erin seemed set to follow but never quite made the grade. Arriving on Saturday, she’s faced with a clear plan laid out by her mother to be put in train the following Tuesday. Over the days in between, Erin comes to understand that’s there’s much more to this family she and her mother turned their backs on for so many years.
It was the last day of her life, and the list of things I would never share with her – the things I would never get – was still growing
Lane unfolds events through Erin’s voice as she looks back over the last three days she spent with her mother. It’s a weekend of sometimes comic misadventure – an ill-advised sexual encounter ends in a theft which very nearly derails her mother’s plan, the kindness of a neighbour results in a battle with a shower door – but an enlightening one. Her narrative is threaded with a sly, dark humour, changing subtly as she comes to realise she’s not nearly as superior to this family she’s dismissed as bumpkins as she thinks she is. The relationship between Wyn and Helen is touchingly portrayed in all its complexity; sisters who’ve come back together in the most difficult of circumstances. A powerful novella written with wit and humanity whose poignancy creeps up on you.
Gallic Books: London 9781913547318 218 pages Paperback