Friday, July 22, 2011

Swimming into Darkness

Book Review: Swimming into Darkness by Gail Helgason, Coteau Books

Reviewed by Jeffrey Canton 
Quill and Quire
December 2001 issue

It’s July 1962 and Thora Sigurdson isn’t enjoying being 13. She wants to be part of the in-crowd at West Beach, attaching herself to the popular Krywulak girls, but she doesn’t want to be disloyal to her bookish best friend, Gretchen McConnell. Further marring what should have been an idyllic summer is the Saskatchewan doctors’ strike, which is tearing apart the community. When one of the Krywulak girls loses her leg as a result of poor medical treatment, surface tensions explode and Thora finds herself caught up in a devastating tragedy. More than 20 years later, Thora, now an archeologist, finds herself grappling with the ghosts of that summer.

Gail Helgason covers a great deal of ground in Swimming into Darkness, her first novel. The book not only explores the emotionally troubled waters of the doctors’ strike – when Saskatchewan doctors closed their offices to protest having to bill fees through the newly created Medical Care Insurance Commission, a precursor to the national Medicare system – but also delves into the rich history of the province’s Icelandic settlers. One of the novel’s subplots focuses on the life and times of an Icelandic-Canadian poet based in part on the real-life Stephan Stephansson.

Moving fluidly back and forth between past and present, Helgason thoughtfully recreates the world of 13-year-old Thora. Helgason is particularly deft at mirroring teenagers’ muddled sense of themselves.

Readers will likely be more impressed with Thora’s archeological work than with her involvement with poet Markus Olafsson. Helgason breezes over the connection between Thora and her poet – a story that could have been just as powerful as that of the doctors’ strike, minus the political complexity.

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