The First Rule of Swimming

  • Courtney Angela Brkic
  • Little, Brown
  • 336 pp.

The yearning for and promise of refuge are symbolized by a fictional Croatian island in this novel about two devoted sisters, survivors who learn that the first rule of swimming is to stay afloat.

Rosmarina is a beautiful island rich with olive groves and silver sardines that race through its waters; it’s an “escaping button from Italy’s boot” in the middle of the Adriatic Sea. But this fictional island — a composite of several Croatian islands where author Courtney Angela Brkic has spent time — possesses a painful history that stretches over centuries of conflict.

The main characters are two devoted sisters, Jadranka and Magdalena, whose family of fishermen has survived the troubled times, sometimes by enduring painful compromise. But after periods of political turbulence, many family members have left the island. Cousins have fled for the U.S. The girls’ uncle, Marin, slipped away after a period of imprisonment and hasn’t been heard from in years. War has changed the course of their lives, Magdalena reflects at one point, “the way an earthquake can crack a road and leave it pointing in a different direction.”

Their hard-bitten mother, Ana, lives on the mainland with a brutal man, and she has no desire to return. Magdalena and Jadranka have been raised by their grandparents. Early on, the girls learn that the first rule of swimming is to stay afloat, and these women are real survivors. Magdalena becomes a school teacher and an atheist with a deep love of the island. Jadranka grows into a gifted painter with a wicked sense of humor. Both are tough and unsentimental.

Then, while visiting her American cousins, Jadranka goes missing. The story shifts from Croatia to New York when Magdalena goes there in search of her sister. Painful layers of conflict and identity begin to gradually unravel. Brkic skillfully weaves the narrative threads together by writing from different points of view. She moves between the perspectives of both sisters — as Magdalena searches for Jadranka and Jadranka searches for difficult answers of her own — as well as into Marin’s and Ana’s points of view.

Throughout the novel we also hear from Luka, the girls’ grandfather, as he lies on his deathbed back in Rosmarina. Unaware of the passage of time, Luka mixes past with present.

“Seasons stopped. And though he was sometimes warm, sometimes cold, he existed mainly in the cloudy water of his dying, which was of uniform temperature. Very occasionally he was aware of this, of the floating which he could not maintain forever but which he was frightened to give up.”

The dying man’s perspective is a brilliant device, implemented here as skillfully as in Paul Harding’s acclaimed novel, Tinkers. Through Luka, Brkic underscores the constant intrusion of secrets and lies from the past into the present. It’s remarkable how much she has packed into this novel, details and layers which always support the central arc of the story and never feel cluttered or superfluous.

Very occasionally the writing seems falsely lyrical, though Brkic generally eschews sentimentality and her characters sometimes engage in inexplicable and random acts of unkindness and cruelty. But this story of two sisters and their powerful bond opens up a psychologically complex world, and while it is mostly character-driven, some of the reading had me furiously flipping pages through the night. Brkic reminds us that home may not be the safest place to be, and knowing the truth may not always lead to closure.  

The sense of dislocation is powerful in this novel, as is the yearning for and promise of refuge, symbolized by the beautiful Rosmarina Island. You won’t soon forget this island with its craggy rocks, inky sea urchins and glistening seas.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a frequent contributor to The Washington Independent Review of Books.  Her short stories have recently appeared in “Our Stories,” “Main Street Rag” and “The Northern Virginia Review.”  

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