I’ve had my eye on Swimmer in the Secret Sea (1975) since I read about it earlier this year and saw that it was published by Godine, one of my favorite publishers. As happens, though, I put off purchasing it online, which is the only place I thought I would find it. However, last month my wife and I were driving around and decided to take a little detour to Montclair, a lovely town just north of us. I slammed on my breaks when I saw an independent bookstore on the corner by the train station. I could have spent all day browsing at the Watchung Booksellers — I’m sure to my family it felt that way; they had loads of interesting books that you just don’t see in the major bookstores. I was delighted to find this painful novella on their shelf.
This short book (just under 100 pages of generously large type and margins) was originally published in Redbook, but in the same year it was published as a paperback. I believe it is a rare thing for a magazine short story to find its way into its own cover. To remain in print through the years is also quite a feat. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one other that has similar success: Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl (and even it is actually two stories).
The story of Swimmer in the Secret Sea couldn’t be simpler. It begins when Diane’s water breaks and Laski runs out to to start the truck:
“I’ll get the truck warmed up.” He went outside into the snow. Beyond the shadowy tops of the pines the vast sky bowl-glittered, and the half-ton truck sat in the moonlight, covered with brightly sparkling ice. He opened the door and slid in, pulling on the choke and turning the ignition key.
Laski and Diane are expecting their first child. I have two young children, so I remember well how the general anxiety just before the delivery mixes with a strange calm (or is it numbness?). Kotzwinkle wonderfully captures these contradicting feelings perfectly.
It seemed to Laski there were two distinct Dianes — one who was shaking like a leaf, and another who was as calm and decisive as any old midwife. He felt the same split in himself as he picked up her valise and carried it toward the stairs. His hand was trembling, his heart pounding, but another part of him was calm, unshakable as an old tree. This calm quiet partner seemed to dwell in some region of the body Laski couldn’t identify. His guts were jumping, his brain was racing, his legs were shaking, but somewhere in him there was peace.
Sadly — and this is no spoiler because it happens at the beginning — the child, whose heartbeat we’ve just heard, dies during labor. Laski and Diane are forced to go back to their cold home and bury the child. The couple doesn’t even know this child, yet they feel its loss greatly. The child had, after all, been with them for nine months, and they had prepared for a life with it. Any comfort the doctors and nurses try to give — the good news is that this is unlikely to happen again; you will certainly be able to have another — just doesn’t cut it: “He thinks that’s what has been at stake, our wish for a child, any child, not this particular child who swung down the road between us. They can’t know how special he is.”
The book’s strength is the simple story, the seemingly simple way it is told, and the cold landscape that all at once emphasizes the book’s tragedy and its hope. The anxiety and the calm, a landscape that is both lonely and comforting, a child that never arrived but is deeply missed, tragedy and hope — or is there really any hope at all here? Such contradictions give the simplicity a full range of emotion. Another strength: the book’s ability to make the reader question any warmth he or she may be feeling.
This novella is depressing, but it also contains a lot of beauty.