I finished reading this about two weeks ago, and still it stays with me, echoing through my skin in a way that those very few, those very special bookI finished reading this about two weeks ago, and still it stays with me, echoing through my skin in a way that those very few, those very special books do. Reading this book was like listening to music, or singing in a choir - feeling the notes and rhythm and joining in yourself, finding yourself compelled to read aloud to have that harmony be a part of you. Maybe I am waxing too poetical about this book, but if I am, it’s only because its prose is so poetic itself. It sings of itself, of love, of desire, of the sea, of Ireland, and of two boys caught up in all of this.
And, oh, those two boys. I fell so hard for Jim and Doyler, their love, so tentative at the beginning, and so all-encompassing. Their relationship made me laugh, smile wider than my face, and weep with both pain and joy. I had to keep putting the book down because I couldn’t quite keep up with all the emotions running through me. About halfway through, I described it to a friend as like I was being wrung dry from the inside, so I couldn’t even cry. I did cheat a little, in that I looked up the end before I read the book, so I knew what was coming. I’m glad I did, I think, as at least I was prepared. I will say no more for those who dislike spoilers, but knowing the ending gave an air of inevitability to the rest of the novel, which added to my enjoyment rather than ruining it.
I have mentioned the language, and the writing, and how gorgeous it is. I know some readers have found the style hard to get used to – it is very ‘Irish’, using dialect and even Gaelic at times. I would say to those readers to try reading it aloud – the words felt heavenly in my mouth and definitely are a huge part of my love of this book. I discovered so many new and beautiful words reading this, so many that I had to start making a list, words like theftuous, moonshaft, spindrift. This book also contains the most amazing sentence I have ever read in prose anywhere: ‘So spake Scrotes, and having spoke he smole a smile and home to raven regions lonely stole.’
That’s not to say that it was all wonderful and lovely. There are a few moments that sit a little uncomfortably, such as two incidences of what could at best be called dub-con, at worst rape, though this is addressed a little in the text. The character of MacEmm, also, is drawn in every type of grey, at times appearing almost heroic, at others, predatory and sinister. His internal monologue (some have called this schizophrenia… I’m not so sure) wanders between the vulgar and the philosophical, particularly in his conversations with Scrotes, his dead former cellmate. I think it is no coincidence that I can’t quite tell how you are supposed to pronounce his name – is it ‘Scrotees’, reminiscent of Socrates, or is it ‘Scroats’, sounding more like a part of male genitalia? Another aspect that could be seen as problematic is that the female characters are portrayed more as tropes than real human beings. The most three-dimensional female character is Eveline MacMurrough, and even she feels to me slightly distant and unknown. The women are clearly strong people, but we never really get to see them as full rounded beings. Then again, in a book entitled ‘At Swim TWO BOYS’ maybe we shouldn’t hold that too hard against it. And it occurs to me that each female character portrays some part of Ireland –Eveline as the almost violent love of the land, Nancy as the eternal mother, Aunt Sawney as the wise watcher – and perhaps that is their role. They exist as part of the whole, in the landscape in which the two boys and MacEmm attempt to forge their lives.
For all that, though, I have no hesitation in classing this as one of the best books I have ever read. One final illustration of just how much I love this book is on the sheer number of quotes I want to save. I have started writing out passages I like from books as I read – previously, this has taken up maybe three or four typed pages at most. So far, quotes from ASTB have used fourteen pages on Microsoft Word, and I haven’t even finished. Yes, it’s a 600 page book, but still. I think if I could type out the whole book I would. I believe I will keep re-reading this book forever, no hyperbole, and it’s probably a good thing I can’t give it more than 5 stars, as there wouldn’t be enough left in the sky after I’d finished. ...more