Thank you, Bloomsbury India, for sending me a proof copy of this smashingly beautiful book!
When we think of war, we think of when it started and when it ended, what caused it to start and what caused it to end, and the casualties that each party suffered throughout the period. But we don’t stop to understand the circumstances that built up to it or the effect of war in the ensuing periods. How people’s lives are affected, not only in the way they live their daily lives, but also ideologically, what their perspectives are, and where their loyalties lie. How do we learn about all this? Which books do we turn to? Do we have enough such books to enlighten us?
The ringing answer that comes to me is: I don’t know. I’m not ashamed to admit this, because now, I know what to look for, and I will consciously make an effort to read and learn more about this. And this push came to me through a book, a proof copy of which made its way to me from the publisher, Bloomsbury India, and for which I will be eternally grateful. Not just for the gift, but because the story itself punched its way into my very soul.
I read Swimming in the Dark in June and it’s taken me a long, long time to write this review, because every time I think of this book, my heart breaks and my eyes fill up. That’s not to say that this is a sad book. It’s a very matter-of-fact narration and that is exactly what will reach inside you and shake your very core.
Swimming in the Dark is set in Poland in the early 1980s, where the country is going through a decline in its communist regime. Two young men, Ludwik and Janusz, meet on an agricultural camp and are instantly attracted to each other, although Ludwik didn’t think Janusz couldn’t possibly be interested in him. They set out on an affair in the confines of countryside Nature where love is love, which in society would be considered a sin.
But their return to the city exposes their respective points of view. While Ludwik is against the communist regime that is pushing the poor into the deeper pockets of poverty while filling the pockets of rich with even more riches, Janusz sees it as a necessity and rises in the ranks of the political party that’s responsible for the economic disparity that they see around them. This creates differences between them and they slowly, steadily are torn apart. Not just by these political standpoints, but also because Ludwik’s urge to be free in love is met with unwillingness on Janusz’s part because of societal pressures. Will these two lovers be able to cope with everything being shoved onto their shoulders? Will they be able to break these restraints? Will their love triumph, or will society triumph? These questions form the whole amazingness of the book.
I don’t know where to start with shouting about this book from the rooftops, because it’s such a compelling story overall. The author, Tomasz Jedrowski, has done such a fabulous job about bringing together love, politics, and human rights in a heady mix of emotions that will leave you reeling by the end. If there’s one thing that I love, it is the author’s ability to bring everything together. Because despite feeling somewhere during the middle that perhaps the author shouldn’t have gone back and forth between the past and the present (the present of the book, not current times), it all tied up beautifully in the end, bringing me a satisfaction that is a huge part of why I love reading.
The characters are complex, because things are not black or white. There’s grayness everywhere because of their situations and they are pushed into making difficult decisions keeping in mind their futures. Their longing to be together while trying to do the right thing for survival tugged at my heartstrings, filled me with their longing, and made me want to make everything right for them. I’m tearing up as I write this – that’s the effect the book has had on me!
James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room has a prominent role to play in the book as Ludwik reads this and is influenced by it to the point where he starts imagining a future where the freedom to live and love as he pleases. He, slowly and steadily, figures out what he wants, his sexuality, and his feelings towards a lot of things that seem to make up his life. This made me want to read Giovanni’s Room because it felt to me like reading about Ludwik without reading Baldwin was like swimming in the dark, if you know what I mean.
I, however, do not mean to appropriate the title of this book. Swimming in the Dark has a lot more connotations than just from an average wit. Despite them swimming freely and openly on their excursion through Nature and exploring each other and their own feelings for the other, ‘swimming in the dark’ is how Ludwik and Janusz have to live in the city, amidst all the fanatics watching their every move. They cannot afford to raise suspicion!
The way Tomasz Jedrowski has brought the aftermath of World War II into this story and set it up as an important backdrop to this love story is phenomenal. This turns the story into something spectacularly hopeful but also heartbreaking. And I would heartily and passionately recommend this book to you. Irrespective of the book you are looking for, this is a book that you must, must read!
Before beginning to write this post, I sat in my chair, staring at the wall opposite, thinking about how to write what I wanted to write. And now, I believe I have put down everything I felt about this stunning book in a way that I am extremely satisfied with!
Last word(s) on this book, though: GO READ IT. IT’S BEAUTIFUL!
Rating: 4.25/5 stars
Picture Courtesy: Goodreads