If you've ever wondered what deep thought might pass through the mind of a champion swimmer being honored as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's female athlete of the year, flip to page 220 of Nicola Keegan's novel Swimming (Knopf; 305 pages), on which Philomena (Pip) Ash, fictitious Olympic gold medalist and the novel's heroine, observes that "it will be the only night in my life where I will dine almost entirely surrounded by people taller than myself."
Yes, it's lonely up there at 6 ft. 2 in. and at the pinnacle of athletic achievement--and a writer could spend her whole career trying to craft a line that says so while also being deadpan hilarious. This is Keegan's debut, and she doesn't even hang out at the pool. ("I don't like chlorine," she says in a promotional video clip about the book. "It makes my eyes sting.") Nevertheless, she has written an ambitious and exhilarating novel about a girl for whom swimming is as vital as breathing.
Pip, who tells her story in the first person, is a difficult infant whose frustrated parents try her out in the water. "I kick; it moves me, and I feel joy," she says, which is the simple secret of her eventual success. Until then, she's stuck in the trappings of a tearjerker minibiopic: in small-town Kansas with a sister dying of Hodgkin's disease, a mother and father in emotional retreat and a Catholic school full of nuns who have no respect for the art of the 200 free.
This territory could get mawkish fast but for the muscular energy of Keegan's prose. It works in bursts--short, punchy clauses and chapters--and Pip's voice is wryly comic, even when events turn tragic. When things go well, she's gloriously, darkly intuitive. (Here she is on the Olympic podium: "The national anthem starts to wail, creating a dreaded musical pressure in my chest as the flag slowly rises in a celebrating-the-dead kind of way. Something churns and my mind says: Wow! This is exactly like a giant funeral!") And for a world-class swimmer, she's not obsessed with swimming. Or rather, the novel isn't. Swimming really is like breathing for Pip--so integral to her life that it goes virtually unnarrated. What that means for readers is that we can relate to her; she may be amphibious to the outside world, but inside she's warm-blooded.
Keegan is smart about where she roots the suspense in her novel. Pip's Olympic quest may be ripped from Michael Phelps' headlines, but we don't have to sweat a photo finish. We know she'll get gold from the epigraph, a quote from her coach that's another deliciously ironic swipe at the double-edged sword of accomplishment: "If this exceptional athlete wore all the Olympic gold medals she has won in her long career and jumped find a pool, she would sink." What we find out is how much Pip's triumphs cost and how they change her. The story may not lend itself to a neatly plotted ending, but with a novel as fun and imaginative as Swimming, you're quick to forgive such a minor failure. It deserves a medal for taking the plunge.