Book review: Swimming With Seals by Victoria Whitworth

Victoria Whitworth
Victoria Whitworth
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There’s no shortage of books about wild swimming out this month and next, to the extent that some larger bookshops may soon need to think about making space for a dedicated wild swimming section. In Floating (Duckworth Overlook, out now), journalist Joe Minihane follows in the footsteps (breaststrokes?) of Roger Deakin and embarks on a wild swimming odyssey around the UK, while in Turning – A Swimming Memoir (Virago, 4 May), Jessica J Lee sets out to swim 52 of the lakes around Berlin, sometimes using a hammer to break the ice before taking the plunge. There’s some wild swimming history, too, in Swell by Jenny Landreth (Bloomsbury, 4 May), which tells the story of the “swimming suffragettes” who, in the early decades of the 20th century, made swimming – both in artificial pools (probably best not to say “man-made” in this context) and in lakes, rivers and seas – the egalitarian pastime it is today.

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect of the lot, however, and certainly of most interest to Scottish readers, is Swimming With Seals, by the academic and novelist Victoria Whitworth. Ostensibly, it’s a book about her experiences of swimming off the coast of Orkney (wetsuit-less, since you ask, and yes, all year round) where she lived for several years. But there’s so much more going on under the surface – so many interesting undercurrents pulling the reader in different directions – that to simply call it “a book about wild swimming” would be to miss the point.

Although she swims off different Orkney beaches at different times of year, sometimes with members of the local wild swimming club, sometimes alone, Whitworth’s typical routine involves a solo swim in the waters of Eynhallow Sound, between mainland Orkney and the island of Rousay. “To the uninitiated eye,” she writes, “the vista is barren, treeless, sparsely inhabited, raw, wild, as though time and humanity have no effect here.” The great thing about Whitworth, however, is that her academic interest lies in the culture and society of Britain in the Early Middle Ages, particularly in relation to death and burial; so whereas a tourist might see a certain “minimalist appeal” in the stark Orkney landscape, to her it is a place overflowing with layer upon layer of hidden meaning.

“The truth is,” she writes, “the landscape in front of me has been overwritten many times across thousands of years, scraped back by forces of geology and weather as well as human activity, revised and inscribed again.” Later, she explains how, against this ancient backdrop, “time feels gossamer-thin”.

So yes, this is a book about a woman who goes swimming with seals, and some of her encounters with Eynhallow Sound’s permanent residents, first published as Facebook posts and included here in their original format, are wonderfully evocative. But in a sense, though they give the book a sort of rough framework and often serve as jumping-off points for fresh intellectual forays, the swims are really only interludes. The meat of the book consists of fascinating digressions on everything from the rich history of Orkney to the echo-locating abilities of orcas, from the 13th century Orkneyinga Saga to the Old English poem The Wanderer – dating from the tenth century, but in Whitworth’s interpretation, startlingly modern in many of its concerns, particularly to do with its take on the hereafter.

Structurally, there doesn’t seem to be much logic in the way a lot of this hangs together, but – as already mentioned – the regular heartbeat of the swims gives the book an unorthodox kind of rhythm that’s all its own. And when the writing is as consistently alert and engaging as this, who cares if the author doesn’t take you by the hand and lead you down a nice, linear path towards an obvious conclusion? Like a swimmer entering a stormy sea, the trick to enjoying Swimming With Seals is to accept that you’re going to be swept around in some unexpected directions and go with the flow.

*Swimming With Seals by Victoria Whitworth, Head of Zeus, £14.99