Swimming to Ithaca – Simon Mawer

The concept of a dual timeline or narrative in fiction fascinates me. I often write about it not being my favourite way of reading a story but it seems every second book I pick up does exactly that! Either it’s a very common choice for an author or on some level I am attracted to books that delve into the past – a message of sorts in that no doubt but I think I’ll leave that be for now.

The main part of Swimming to Ithaca is set in Cyprus during the 1950’s. Dee is an army wife, stationed with her husband and small daughter Paula while her son Thomas has remained in England at boarding school. Thomas is a central character in the story, the current day story focuses on his life and his attempts to uncover his mother’s past. In the 1950’s he visits from boarding school and picks up on subtle shifts in his mother’s behaviour. Dee’s husband is almost a non character in the novel, away a lot, leaving Dee alone to find her feet and to develop a relationship of sorts with three different men. These men are all involved in the rising tensions between the Greek Cypriots and the British army.

The 1950’s was a time when Cyprus was under British rule, and saw the emergence of EOKA – a Greek Cypriot nationalist movement – fighting for independance. Dee finds herself reluctantly becoming involved in this fight. As he did in The Glass Room, Simon Mawer uses an aggressive setting for his story which contrasts beautifully with the gentle way he allows his characters and their relationships to evolve. I liked this aspect of Swimming to Ithaca very much and would have been happy if the whole book had been set in this time frame. The soldier, the freedom fighter and the spy’s relationship with one woman made for intriguing reading.

By contrast I found the present day story of Dee’s son Thomas quite ordinary and uninspiring. Years later and shortly after his mother’s death, Thomas comes across some papers and tries to make sense of what happened to his mother all those years ago in Cyprus. He is able to speak to those who are still alive, and also analyses the reliability of his own memories. Running parallel to this is his blossoming relationship with one of his students and her daughter. I should say though that there wasn’t anything really wrong with this story, it just didn’t appeal to me. There was also a twist at the end of the book which was a bit of a shock – it seemed to come out of nowhere and didn’t quite fit in somehow.

Putting aside the part of Swimming to Ithaca that I wasn’t so keen on, I’m really pleased to have discovered Simon Mawer. There is something about his style I really like. He is not afraid to take risks with his characters and throw in the odd unorthodox scene or opinion. The settings of his books are important and affect the actions of his characters but don’t overshadow them – clever writing, and I look forward to reading more of his books.

What do you think of a book cover that has a fairly clear picture of the characters? My imagination and the cover of the version I read definitely didn’t match!

2006, 352 pages

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7 responses to “Swimming to Ithaca – Simon Mawer

  1. I loved The Glass Room and am currently reading (and loving) his new book, The Girl Who fell From the Sky. I haven’t seen anyone review his earlier books so I was excited to see your review for this one. Sorry you didn’t fall in love with it. It sounds as though Mawer is improving over time as I can’t fault his latest ones.

    • Jackie – I’m really looking forward to reading The Girl Who fell From the Sky. Lucky you for picking up an early copy 0:) This is one that really appeals to me and I can’t wait to read your review of it.

  2. I must admit I am tempted. I really, really liked his Glass Room, and I’d like to learn more about Cyprus. I think I’ll put it on my wishlist…
    Thanks for an enticing review, Lisa

    • Lisa – thank you and I hope you do get to it at some stage. I would love to hear your take on it. I am also interested in Cyprus and enjoyed being transported to another time and place – something I think Simon Mawer does really well. Not as special as The Glass Room but still very good.

  3. I don’t know if you saw simon mawer tweeted your review on twitter yesterday ,just thought you should know ,I like glass room and will try him again at some point ,all the best stu

    • Stu – thanks so much for letting me know. I don’t follow twitter but have been over and taken a look. I’m very intrigued now about the cover of the book and am off to investigate the background behind the story.

  4. Pingback: A Book Sanctuary

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