Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies is immersed in the life aquatic
By Leanne Shapton. Blue Rider Press, 336 pp, hardcover
It’s late in the season to be recommending beach books, which is fine: you’re probably better off not taking this one to the shore. After a week in my swim bag, jostling against the prescription snorkel mask, the SPF 60 sunscreen, the stinky neoprene water shoes, and an assortment of damp towels, my copy of Swimming Studies is stained and sandy, its absorbent cardboard cover swollen and sprung.
I’ve been dipping into Leanne Shapton’s memoir the way I’ve been dipping into the Strait this summer: regularly, carefully, always alert for surprises. You never know what you’ll find when you’re awash in a foreign element, and Shapton’s swim-world is very different from mine: not the salty, seaweedy realm of the coastal dabbler, but the steamy, chlorinated haunt of the competitive swimmer. Which the Etobicoke native was: while still in her teens, Shapton made the 1988 and 1992 Olympic trials, though never the Games themselves.
Disappointment colours her beautifully written account of those years, with their adrenalized glories and painful letdowns. “I remember the moment I knew I was not going to go to the Olympics,” she recalls. “I am fourteen.…Though we’re still warming up, I’m exhausted. My arms hurt, legs hurt, lungs hurt, and I think, grimly: What for?”
But Swimming Studies is far more than a failed athlete’s coming-of-age story. Wisely, Shapton has decided to make her book as immersive as swimming itself, working her paintings and a photo gallery of her retired swimsuits into its pages. Fast, brushy portraits of her fellow swimmers are accompanied by capsule descriptions: “Aidan gives me his U2 War T-shirt, unlaundered, and I keep it that way.…Sean tells me that you can check if your breath is okay by licking your forearm and smelling it.” Fourteen small, bright, oval miniatures depict an array of swimming-related odours, including “Finesse conditioner”, “wet acrylic mitten”, and “starchy mucus scent”. Seventy slate-toned geometric abstracts show remembered swimming pools.
Words and images flow together effortlessly, and their cumulative impact is deep.