TEXT review

Swimming for her life

review by Sue Bond


Enza Gandolfo
Vanark Press 2009
ISBN 978-0-9803500-2-9 
pb 330pp AUD29.95


Kate Wilks is a swimmer; she moves far more easily in the water than she does on land, and she has been swimming all her life. The symbol of water is all through this first novel by Enza Gandolfo, and makes for a flowing feel, the words sometimes drifting, sometimes whirlpooling, sometimes rushing, crashing, or still.

But Kate, now near sixty, meets up with her ex-husband, the sculptor Tom, at a photography exhibition. Kate is the subject of one of the photographs, naked and standing in the sea; the photographer is her best friend Lynne’s daughter, Tess, both mother and daughter are very important in Kate’s life. But Tom unexpectedly asks her ‘Do you think…we might have stayed together if we’d had children?’ (11).

And this question becomes the impetus for Kate to go back into her memories of trying to have a baby. She digs out an unfinished manuscript called ‘Writing Sarah’, a collection of fragments and chapters that describes her thoughts and feelings as she fell pregnant, only to miscarry each time. The core of the book is Kate’s exploration of what it means to be childless, to want a baby so badly that you give her a name and imagine her so clearly that she almost becomes real. Almost, but not quite.

There are other stories contained within this one, too, such as that of Kate’s parents, who she remembers as fighting a lot, her friend Lynne, who now has early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and Tom’s second wife Mai, whose family came to Australia from Vietnam and suffered the deaths of two daughters. Mai comes to live with Kate and Tom after being thrown out of home by her brother, and Tom and she fall in love, a betrayal that is particularly painful for Kate especially when Mai becomes pregnant.

Gandolfo writes lyrical passages that connect with the emotions and bodily changes of her character. Kate’s older self, as portrayed in the photograph, is neatly described: ‘I’m both myself and someone else—Venus, the ancient goddess emerging from the ocean depths; and a plainish older woman bathing in the sunshine’ (6). The author manages to show the multiple views of women in a society such as ours without making it laboured: the young male journalist interviewing Kate at the exhibition; the doctors’ assumption that Kate will go on to IVF; the Vietnamese community’s shunning of Mai when she is sexually harassed by a Vietnamese man; Kate’s mother and aunt talking only of women who eventually became mothers, never of those who remained childless; the very word ‘childless’ itself, connotating as it does that a woman is ‘less’ something if she doesn’t have children. And Kate’s searing, repeated losses, resulting in a deep, lasting grief. She questions what her life means, and what she is worth, surrounded by people with children who ask her why she has no children herself.

Gandolfo is particularly good at depicting grief, with sentences like ‘For two weeks her womb has been a coffin’ (122), and Kate feeling her body as a ‘hostile landscape’ (214) unable to sustain a baby. When Kate is thinking of her father’s death, she remembers her mother saying:

When I open the wardrobe doors and I see his clothes,’ Mum said, ‘for a moment he’s alive. Maybe in the garden or at the pub and I think of things to say to him, stuff I want to tell him. And for that moment I am not alone. (223)

The novel is also about Kate’s survival, despite her loss and grief: she is now a successful writer, and lives with (ten years younger) George, who is wise, sexy and interesting. Others who did have children do not always fare so well: Mai dies young and Lynne loses her memory. This is, it seems to me, a reminder that having children is not a talisman against sadness and pain, something that Lynne acerbically reminds Kate after the birth of Tess. The fact Kate has survived is concisely symbolised by a short passage near the end of the book, where she remembers her father lifting up his shirt to visitors to show them his surgical scar: ‘I lived through this was implicit in the act of display’ (251). She elaborates:

I’m drawn to this examination of the past as one is drawn to trace the origin of an old scar, to revisit the pain that came with the initial wound, secure in the knowledge that I have survived. (251)

Tom’s sculptures, and art and vocation generally, are important in this story. The creation of art is linked to Kate’s creation of life through pregnancy, and just as her attempts are thwarted, Tom’s work is renewed through his love for Mai. What results is not a surprise, but a symbolic action that both cleanses and appalls Kate. I did feel that the reader is not given enough of Tom to understand his feelings. It seems that, as Kate assumes he doesn’t feel much when she miscarries, that we are not meant to believe he does either. Perhaps more attention to Tom’s creative and emotional life might have been enriching.

As a writer I am intrigued by the ‘Writing Sarah’ manuscript. Kate says of it that it ‘is obviously a first draft’ and ‘requires much restraint not to attack it with a pen’ (104).  This made me wonder how, as a reader as well as a writer, I should read these segments? As an actual first draft written by the character of Kate years ago, or as the novelist’s finished version of her character’s writing? They do not actually read as drafts, of course, but as polished chapters. They are, nevertheless, effective ways to advance Kate’s story, despite the incongruity.

The other problem I encountered with the reading of this otherwise sensitive and intelligent novel is that in places it ‘drowns’ in words. The dynamic feel falls away when Kate is allowed too much rumination, going repeatedly over thoughts until the reader loses interest. There are remembered scenes that do not contribute to the narrative, but weigh it down. A tightening of some of the prose would have injected more energy into it.

But as a woman without children myself, I welcome this beautifully written and engaging novel. There are few imaginative works dealing directly with infertility and childlessness (chosen or otherwise), and this one explores it from various angles and points of view, always with Kate’s struggle, and survival, at the centre.


Sue Bond is a freelance writer and reviewer for several publications, as well as book reviews editor for M/C Reviews: Culture and the Media.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 14 No 2 October 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb