The Breathtaking and the Bewildering: Patrick West's The World Swimmers

Review by Robert Goodman
Short stories are their own particular art form. Like poetry, they are often the expression of an idea or a mood or a character. A distillation of a thought into prose. As a result, a collection of short stories can often feel a bit like a rollercoaster. Every few pages everything changes – the tone, the voice, the mood, the narrative style – and can often leave the reader disconcerted, longing for a lengthier narrative and characters with which they can connect more fully.
The World Swimmers, a collection of nine short stories by Patrick West, has this disconcerting nature. The stories are on the whole very short: quick dips in and out of a varied set of lives and situations. Many are thought provoking and disconcerting all on their own, never mind when they start bumping up against each other. And yet, unlike many bodies of collected work, there is a cohesion here, a pattern that emerges as you step back from the individual pieces and consider the whole.
The World Swimmers displays a wide range of styles of narration and voice, many of which border on the poetic and abstract. Most are first person narratives from wildly different narrators (a modern day Australian man, a 19th century Hungarian trainee midwife, a female Japanese research student). Others play with second person but in different styles.
That said, this group of stories is very strongly linked thematically. In almost all of the stories the main character/narrator is an outsider, a person out of their comfort zone or fighting against conformity. In ‘Greenwood’ it is the boy from a ‘special school for boys’ unable to fit in a mainstream class. In ‘Dear Semmelnazi’ the narrator is a would-be midwife in 19th century Hungary shunned after she has to take care of a little boy who himself grows up to buck futilely against the establishment. And in ‘As of Shadows’ the main character starts by telling us that she is ‘one of those few people born in the country in which I should have been born’. These characters are not alone but they are outsiders, some deliberately so.
West is also interested in boundaries and borders – the area where one thing or place becomes another – and their effect on people. Many of the stories are set on the coast, where the land meets the sea (including a couple of inland seas), or have the coast as a destination. The beautiful ‘Nhill’ charts a walk into Victoria’s little desert ‘different from the surrounding countryside’. After their walk to the salt lake at the heart of the desert the narrator and his wife are physically ‘ejected’ by the place, reinforcing its otherness. In ‘Shame’ a Japanese researcher is told a story of a rare tree that now only grows within a fence surrounding an American army base. She replies that ‘this type of tree was now as good as extinct for the Japanese as it is no longer a reality for the Okinawan people; they could neither see it nor touch it’. The main character in ‘As of Shadows’ becomes a border guard but the real border that she wishes to patrol is the border between what people are and what they should be.
There are some breathtaking stories in The World Swimmers and some bewildering ones. ‘U’, for example, is a palindromic story, set by the shore, its ascending and descending repetition work like a tidal pull. Not all of the stories worked and some defied me, but there is a poetry here and some enduring imagery that make even these worth the journey. The stories that do work in this collection are transformative, changing the way you look at or feel about the world, though not always in a way that is immediately obvious.
The World Swimmers
Patrick West
The International Centre for Landscape and Language, 2011
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