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An Open Swimmer by Tim Winton
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An Open Swimmer (1981)

by Tim Winton

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(Spoilers - old review)
Jerra Nilsam seems to carry Winton’s main ideas in this book, the theme being reinforced by recurring imagery like Jerra’s cold hands, the “No” carved in the tree and the jewel or pearl he hopes to find in a fish before finally discovering that you only find them in an open swimmer. This seems to me to suggest that, if the pearl is to be taken as something valuable (and significantly it's close to the brain – i.e. something found through thought, through an approach to life), and one is to gain this pearl, then you have to be uncluttered, independent, strike out on your own, not be held back and moulded by those around you. This idea comes through the significantly named Aunt Jewel, Sean's mother and the woman, I believe whom Jerra had an affair with, when she says “Don’t let them make you old before you're young”, (a sentence to be echoed later in the novel).

The book, then, is about the search for meaning in life, or rather direction, Sean not being able to settle to any job and not knowing what to do. He's dropped out of college and we're obviously meant to feel that this was the right choice (despite his parents' well-meaning concern), because Sean has toed the line and come out an upwardly mobile hut increasingly moribund, unbalanced person, one who crassly suggests changing the "No" on the tree to "Snot", the sort of empty remark that characterises him, though significantly he calls out for his mother in his sleep, as if Winton is suggesting that he's suppressed something in his life.

What happens in the novel is sometimes hard to piece together because it’s not in chronological order and when we do go back and forwards in time it's often in little snippets which reveal a little but not enough for us to do more than speculate and put one or two more disconnected piecec into the jigsaw. Sean and Jerra were good friends as their fathers had been, Sean’s father being Jim. Jewel and Sean were close but Jewel became mentally unstable and went into a mental institution. She supposedly made a recovery though, but later she and Jim got caught at sea in Jim's boat and she lost her baby, being pregnant at the time. I wonder if that was Jerra's baby because Jewel says elsewhere that Jim didn't like or want children. Shortly after that she committed suicide, cutting her throat and walking out to sea. This led to Sean coming to live with the Nilsams, Jim giving them a new two storey house in return and probably another house (in Perth) for Jerra's grandmother – or at least letting her live there, So Jerra's parents became sort of surrogate parents to Sean, but he seemingly rejected them later when he went into his father's business, something that Jerra despises him for. Jerra didn't like the way his parents had been bought by Jim either – nor did his father as Jerra could tell when they went into the new house.

What I find a bit confusing still, or at least not clear, is the way the old solitary man whom Jerra finds on the remote beach has a similar story to Jerra's. He and his wife had had a boat and that too had been wrecked. The woman was pregnant but the old man burned the shack down when his wife said she was going to leave him because all she was interested in was the boat so when that was gone, it was all over and she was having affairs with other men. Now how does that reinforce or comment on the Jerra story? It was so close in places that I thought it might have been the same story from a different angle at one time. In this too there’s the ringbolt that Jerra finds while diving. It seems connected with the pearl but I'm not sure. When the old man finally dies in one of his own kangaroo traps, Jerra ties diving weights to the body and uses the ringbolt to help him. He also drops the man into a deep hole (in or near the wreck) from which had emerged a fish which he had struggled with, rather sadistically, and finally killed so there's more of a link there.

The nasty struggle is accounted for probably because Jerra didn’t forgive Jewel for killing herself and perhaps in stabbing the fish near its throat to inflict pain, he was acting out a revenge on Aunt Jewel. Why too does Winton have the bough breaking the van at the end (and the old man saving him}? Perhaps it's symbolic of the way the old man verbally frees Jerra, talking about the open swimmer. Just as he gets him out of the crushed van, helps him to a new life, so he tells him how to find the pearl, something he’d been searching for since he lost one he and his father had found when he was only eight. ( )
  evening | Jul 31, 2012 |
Typical Winton. Some great language and vivid descriptions of fishing. Very Australian. Not as good as his latest - Breath. ( )
  yosbooks | Jun 25, 2009 |
Hard to get into story about two friends who aren't getting on so well after they leave school. They go on a fishing holiday on an abandoned area only to find that a hermit lives there. There's a secret that drives the two apart and causes real difficulties for one of the friends. Things are slowly unveiled as the story goes on, but if anything things get even more complicated. ( )
  Ardwick | Mar 18, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0330412582, Paperback)

'Winton's writing is a heady blend of muscular description, deep sentiment and metaphysics' Sunday Telegraph A fishing trip marks the end of Jerra and Sean's friendship, although once, when they were younger and more innocent, it would have seemed unbelievable that the bond between them -- first forged by their fathers, and later sealed with their blood -- could ever be broken. But growing up has meant growing apart, the differences between them widening, sharpening their teasing words into something crueller and less easy to forgive. At once a haunting and a powerful exploration of the horrors and joys of adulthood, An Open Swimmer is also a meditation on past and present, a story of madness and murder, and of the punishing yet redemptive qualities of both fire and water. 'His elegiac novels are uplifting and cathartic dissections of fractured men and women' Independent 'Winton has a fine ear for both intimate and monumental scales of drama' Evening Standard

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:30 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"Jerra and his best mate Sean set off in a beaten-up old VW to go camping on the coast. Jerra's friends and family want to know when he will finish university, when he will find a girl. But they don't understand about Sean's mother, Jewel, or the bush or the fish with the pearl. They think he needs a job, but what Jerra is searching for is more elusive. Only the sea, and perhaps the old man who lives in a shack beside it, can help." - Penguin website.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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