At the Sechelt Library this week, I saw among the new books a novel called Holding Her Breath, by Eimear Ryan. The cover shows a swimmer in blue water. Ah, I thought: a book for me. Last night I read 82 pages and yes, it truly is a book for me. It’s set in Ireland. Beth, the young protagonist, is a competitive swimmer with a conflicted relationship with swimming, studying psychology at Trinity College Dublin, and an illustrious grandfather, whom she never knew because he died, a suicide, when her mother was still a child. The grandfather was a poet whose work continues to be taught in schools and universities. Beth is attracted to a postdoctoral research fellow specializing in the work of her grandfather. I love the section where she attends one of his lectures with her room-mate, listening to him discuss passages of her grandfather’s epic poem “Roslyn”.
“Isn’t Roslyn an imaginary place?” It’s a voice in the front row. The room animates with glances and affirming nods. This is what they were taught in secondary school, what they regurgitated in their exams.
“I don’t believe it is,” says Justin. “All Crowe’s poetry is rooted, specific. Even if he’s riffing on some mad star pattern, you can be sure he’s got a specific constellation in mind. When I was an undergrad, there was a rumour that the coordinates to Roslyn were encoded within the text itself. Now, I never did figure it out–but I bet you a hundred euro that Crowe is talking about a real place.”
When I was swimming in the lake a little earlier, I was thinking about the book. Last night I could have kept reading until I’d finished–the narrative is that compelling. But I wanted to savour it and so I put it aside. I suspect there will be a relationship between Beth and Justin and of course that will be problematic in many ways. There are boundaries — his, as an instructor; hers, as a possible access point for archival material thus far unavailable. (Justin has already visited Beth’s grandmother who guards her late husband’s materials fiercely.) I’m interested to see how Eimear Ryan navigates this fraught territory. I was reminded of my own university days, in the last century, when it was more common for certain territorial boundaries to be crossed. I’m not arguing that it was right. Times have changed in this respect, mostly for the better. I know there are always power imbalances but sometimes they’re less clear or quantifiable than we might imagine. From the time I was about 12, boys my own age were slightly nervous in my company. I was tall. I had what might be termed a “mature” figure. All through high school the boys I liked weren’t interested in me. I had a complicated relationship with my father, who loved me but who had no idea of how to parent a daughter with ideas of her own that were at odds with his. I had several high school teachers who helped me figure stuff out. How to think about the future, which in their opinion would be university. My parents had no idea how this worked but luckily I had good guides. One of them frequently gave me poetry books to read — Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath — and told me I could be a writer. (In later years, when I did publish books and gave poetry readings in Victoria, he was often in the front row, beaming.) And at university, I had some mentors who also provided guidance and support. In one or two cases, it could have gone further. I knew that. One man used to schedule our directed reading meetings in the faculty club and I suspect he wanted to give the impression that we were a number. We weren’t. But I had his support, his conviction that what I thought and wrote mattered deeply, and was I harmed by this slightly unbalanced situation? I don’t believe I was. I had affection for him, and respect, which continued long after I’d graduated. There was someone else who chose me as a sort of muse. Again, it was a relationship that appeared to be something that it wasn’t. I don’t regret it, exactly. I learned so much. I think he did too. And my house is filled with his paintings, some of them purchased by John and I, some of them brought as gifts to us and our children. I see his attentive eye in their composition, their colours, and if I’m the inspiration for some of them, what a gift to the aging woman I am now. These are the things I was thinking as I swam, provoked by reading Holding Her Breath last night, and maybe I’m entirely wrong, maybe this isn’t where the book is heading, but the combination of poetry and boundaries and swimming had me in the deep water of my own complicated past.