The Third Swimmer

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 09 Nov 2018

Member Reviews

“To live is to throw something out in front of you, a hope, a belief; it’s chucking your own heart ahead of you like a life belt.”


This book takes some digesting. Both in the reading of and in the contemplation of.

You have to have time for it, and enjoy the language. In much the same way as The Remains of the Day, it is more about what doesn’t happen and what isn’t said. Inaction and contemplation. And then, suddenly action, suddenly truth – at the end.

The language is sumptuous and eternal, like the sea. I found in it a lot of truths and a lot of beauty. The story is bare, stark. It’s about the war, both on a universal and personal level. About choices made, words not said, things known and unknown at the same time. And there is to me a strong sense of fate, of the inevitable – what is meant to happen and not. Being in the right place or wrong place.

I had read in advance that Brackenbury is a poet, and I do indeed find the language in the book quite lyrical. I happen to enjoy that, but I think you need to go into it knowing that, and knowing that it’s a slow story, and you have to be in the mood for it.

The point of view is fluid, drifting from one character to another (only 3 different ones I think, but there could certainly have been one or two I forgot about) with no clear markers, which adds to the dreamlike, hypnotic quality. I brought this with me to a restaurant on the beach one evening, and sat there with it after my meal, watching the sun set, listening to the waves and reading, reading. It was lovely.

Though I completely understand the reason for writing about such a pivotal time as wartime – the preamble and the aftermath – in this fractured, flowing, slightly elusive way, it also leads to not really understanding characters motivations for some of the choices made, which is always a little unsatisfying to me. I’m talking in particular about one choice made by Olivia which I won’t go into details about as it’s a spoiler, but if you read it you may understand what I mean. There’s also a lot of repetition of themes, by which I mean that the characters are constantly going over the same things in their minds. And indeed that is often how the human mind works, it was just at times a little much of it for a novel, I felt.

Though overall I found it quite gripping (especially the part about the third swimmer, which is a true story) and mesmerising. It was a meditative and joyous read, and I’m sorry to see so few people have apparently read this book (going by number of reviews). It’s definitely worth the effort.
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The Third Swimmer presents us with a very simple tale, but beautifully told. The way the story is presented to us, in two separate tempos, the layers of meaning hidden in the dialogues and in the different characters, the connections made with real life and real History make this book interesting a very enjoyable.

The metaphor in the title, the third swimmer that was present in their marriage since the beginning, unspoken of but recognized by both participants, the intimacy or lack of it so well portrayed in the behaviour and dialogues made me a little emotional at times. 

It was a beautiful book and I recommend it to everyone who likes a good story well told.
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Although sketchy for details, I still enjoyed this exploration of the intimacy between a long-married couple, and their reactions to the world around them. Quirky and entertaining.
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My first ARC thanks to NetGalley.  I wavered between 2.5 and 3 stars. This is a quiet novel set first during  WWII and then 12 years later on the coast of France. A young woman, Olivia, works for and has been having a 5-year affair with her married boss who may or may not be a spy for Germany.  But when she meets a younger architect, Thomas, at the same firm, she marries him hastily, as women were wont to do at the beginning of the war. It's clear from the beginning Felix won't leave his wife for her, nor is Olivia quite in love with Thomas the way he is with her.  I wondered where this plot was heading for nearly the first half of the book.  There's plenty of talk about the war and London blitz  but skimpy character development and the narrative seemed rushed and disjointed. But when Thomas and Olivia go to France on their first vacation, 12 years and four children later, the story picks up dramatically.  There, tensions surface in their one-sided marriage. The last third of the book is quite suspenseful, involving a harrowing sea rescue. However, I still felt the main characters lacked depth and the reader learns mostly about them through their own rambling thoughts and musings.
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All I can say about this book is that it is a remarkable work. The multi-layered story of the relationship and marriage of Olivia and Thomas Esselman, born in war and reborn after, is, in short, a spectacular love story.

By love story, I mean ups and downs, secrets and lies, children, dreams dreamed but not brought to fruition,and dreams that are not so much dreams as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Young Thomas Esselman, a promising architect, meets and falls in love with Olivia on the day she delivers a letter that tells him he has been fired from his architectural firm. Unbeknownst to Thomas, Olivia is having an affair with her employer. Nevertheless, she agrees to marry Thomas, and they do so around the time he is shipped off to war.

The first part of the book is about their separate lives, during wartime. The second part takes place on what seems to be a desperate attempt to save their marriage, in the seaside village of Cassis, France. This might sound boring or inane, but it is anything but. The descriptive language interspersed with dialogue weave a web so delicate that it is impossible to not get caught up in it with these characters. The story ends with an unexpected event that allows them to finally unburden themselves of their secrets, and discover, like fractured bones after they have healed, that the two of them, individually and as a couple, are stronger than ever.

I received The Third Swimmer (which is a double entendre that the reader must discover for him or herself) as an ARC from NetGalley and the publisher.
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