The First Rule of Swimming
Courtney Angela Brkic
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Buy *The First Rule of Swimming* by Courtney Angela Brkiconline

The First Rule of Swimming
Courtney Angela Brkic
Little, Brown
336 pages
May 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Brkic accomplishes much in this novel, avoiding the usual trials of what might have been a rather mawkish tale. Telling of life on a lush island, filling the narrative with descriptions of another existence, Brkic breathes emotion into her exotic and abstract novel. In a story of relationships—how we negotiate them, the pain they cause, and the possibilities they offer—Brkic contemplates the notion of recovery from even the most traumatic of life’s experiences.

The story begins on the small Croatian island of Rosmarina and moves on to New York, where the winters are just too cold. Sisters Jadranka and Magdalena visit their older American cousin, Katarina. In Katarina’s mind, both girls are trapped “on amber Rosmarina,” an island that has become a place Katarina knows as much from her parents’ generation as from a single childhood trip in 1984. Ensconced in her large and beautifully furnished Manhattan brownstone, the memories of her extended family have faded as she boldly suggests that Jadranka come to America, precisely because her cousin is not sure of her place in the world.

Magdalena has chosen to stay on Rosmarina and work as a schoolteacher. With a mixture of pity and respect, she attends daily to her grandfather Luka, who has recently suffered a stroke. Barely clinging to the surface of life and living in “the random scattering of days and weeks,” Luka adds another layer of history to this tale as he remembers the “constant fog” of his childhood and his recollections of the War.

The cousins, meanwhile, have not seen each other in more than twenty years. The disappearance of Marin, their older uncle, in America a few years earlier has completely devastated the family. His parents are unable to discuss the matter with their growing grandchildren, causing flame-haired Jadranka to finds solace in her painting. Jadranka’s mother Ana is incapable of dealing with island life and finds herself alone on the mainland, suffering through an abusive marriage. She refuses to visit Rosmarina, where Magdalena has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid her.

Running from violent history of postwar Croatia‘s violence from 1945 until the breakup of Yugoslavia, Brkic’s characters lack permanence as they grow up struggling with issues of trust and belonging. This is most evident in how Jadranka and Magdalena try to find their niche and communicate with themselves and the world. Using Jadranka’s artwork, the symbolic language of her time on Rosmarina, Brkic captures this sense of disconnect where life’s tribulations leave none unscathed.

Brkic builds her novel around the voices of Jadranka, who resembles nobody else on Rosmarina; Magdalena, who resents Katarina’s privileged American life, most manifested in a naked jealousy that both satisfies and disturbs her; and Marin, who wonders about the girl who has come to work for him in his Cuban restaurant in the heart of Manhattan. Her Split accent and the orphaned air that surrounds her heighten the disturbed, hunted quality in her eyes. The girl has a sense of dislocation and a look that haunts his dreams as she follows him onto the streets and into the grayness of New York. She forces Marin to remember the small Italian town where he had once languished for months in a refugee camp.

While the invisible strings of Rosmarina tether Marin “like marionette,” threatening to lift him from the island and return him to hell, Magdalena must consider her options when Jadranka goes on the run. Life in America is nothing like either niece expected. Brkic takes her melancholy story and infuses it to the extreme as Magdalena returns to Rosmarina, her sister perhaps becoming nothing more than a cautionary tale that island mothers tell their children.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2013

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