Book review: Swimming in the Dark

A youthful romance in post-war Poland

Hunger, fear, oppression. Desires that are , illegal. But they always surface. Like a diver from a pool, they emerge and break the calm surface.

That is exactly what happens to Ludwik on a work camp where he and other students go to work the fields. Janusz swims in the lake, encouraging Ludwik to join him. Slowly, tentatively (like getting in the perpetually cold Finchley Lido), the pair fall together. They spend the summer hiking, swimming and reading books that haven’t been sanctioned by the state.

And they love each other.

Jedrowski does a marvellous job of capturing the intensity of young love. Ludwik’s demanding love, Janusz’s fleeting love. The two are drawn together because they both are.

The author does an equally expert job at taking us back to Soviet Poland; a time and period, I admit, I don’t know a huge amount about. The story is perfectly set within the time and the place and “the Party”: the hunger, fear and oppression, not of desires but of life. Tomasz is a superb writer, whose prose falls off the page and sticks with you. You are there, in Poland, with Janusz and Ludwik.

It’s a book with a romance at its heart and not much else besides. The simplicity of the story makes the relationship between the characters so much more vivid. It is not spoilt by an endless cast of supporting characters and complicated subplots. It is a story told well.

“It felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narrator – despite their agony, despite their pain – healed some of my agony and my pain, simply by existing.”

Swimming in the Dark

While these words actually describe Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin – the book that brings the young men together – it could equally apply to Jedrowski’s book.

The book is told by Ludwik. He talks, essentially, to Janusz. At the start, I wondered about the use of the second person. You do this, you said that, I saw you. But I think it was that closeness that made the book so compelling. A real masterclass in the use of the second person.

In my last book review of Dance on my Grave, I spoke of an opportunity lost because of a plot not fully realised. I realise that I sound like I am contradicting myself here but it is the simplicity of the story that makes this so powerful.

Downsides? Only 229 pages! This is the sort of book that you just want more of. Not a sequel; I just want to stay with the characters forever.

To buy a copy of Swimming in the Dark, click here.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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