[First published 2006 by Little, Brown]
Simon Mawer is quickly climbing the ranks as one of my favourite authors. Everything I read of his sweeps me away and leaves me thinking long after the last page has been read. The writing is sublime, the stories are gripping. It is the ultimate reading experience. ‘Swimming to Ithaca’ is admittedly not my favourite novel of his thus far, but it is exceptional nonetheless.
The opening of the book introduces us to Thomas as his mother, Dee, dies. As he and his sister try to come to terms with grief, dealing with all of the material aspects that arise in the aftermath of death, he finds himself haunted by the memory of his mother. This is especially so in light of the fact that, in one of her final conversations with her son, she pronounced her illness and death to be a punishment.
The narrative weaves between Thomas as he packs up his mother’s home, allows himself to look into the hidden elements of her personal life, and engages in a relationship with one of his students; and their memories of their life in Cyprus after World War II. It is almost as if these questions have been lying dormant during the course of her life and, now she is gone, he has the courage to confront the truth. It is a story written on the real and the supposed for Thomas – memory mingles with conjecture over his mother’s life and affairs during their years in a ravaged Cyprus.
From her account, we learn that her greatest love affair was with Charteris – a man who left for war and never came home. She tries to hold on to anything that even vaguely resembles him and the role he played in her life which, in some respects, can account for how things transpired in Cyprus.
As the story unfolds, the reader gets a tangible sense of the divisions within Cyprus and how the British presence there often exacerbated the problem rather than allayed it. It was an atmosphere of secrecy and division – a world that Dee and her family don’t really fit into comfortably, yet one that will have an effect on their lives. As the truth begins to reveal itself to the reader, we are made aware of the intensity of feelings Thomas felt towards his mother, sense the damage, and yearn for the truth to unfold. His actions seem an act of catharsis – although we do not get a clear picture of what he is looking to purge until the end.
Thomas is almost trapped in this past of secrets, so much so that his pursuit of a relationship with his student Kale is an act of rebellion against his mother, although she would never be able to see it. Like his mother, however, he is assuaged by the fear of loss. His love for his mother is a powerful thing, affected by its context from when he was growing up and what has been repressed. Moreover, this book documents how love can shift and mutate into something consuming and destructive, assuming an identity where resentment and distrust can flourish.
‘Swimming to Ithaca’ examines how simple acts are not immune from the universal applicability of ‘cause and effect’ – making what may seem to be incidental and fleeting the catalyst of a chain of events that can alter the lives of those around us. It is an exposé on the fragility of human relationships, guilt, betrayal, and the power of history to affect the future.