Another Pride read! Although Swimming in the Dark is much more devastating then Only Mostly Devastated. But that’s what happens when you read a novel about gay men in 80’s Poland. Buckle up and get ready for an emotional rollercoaster, courtesy of Jedrowski.
Bookstagram is a place where I sometimes feel I don’t read enough, I’m not trendy enough and I have to read every new release. And also become a photographer. And start drinking coffee. In those instances, I remind myself that my bestie and I are posting because we love books and that reading isn’t a contest.
It is in that addictive and wonderful blackhole that I first saw mentions of Swimming in the Dark. It seemed like a cross between A Little Life and Call Me By Your Name, two beautiful and depressing novels in their own right, so I was intrigued.
I read it in two days.
Now, if you’ve seen the size of this book, its less than 200 pages, you may be asking yourself why it took me so long to read it. Frankly, I took my time with it because it is such a rich text. I needed to. To understand and absorb everything, I needed time to process and feel. I’m so glad I took it slowly. The story deserved it.
The story: 1980’s Poland. Ludwik, a recent college graduate, is sent to work at a ‘farm camp’ that was required by the Communist for all young people at the time. They must spend several weeks working, tending fields, and gathering beets for the good of the party. A party that does not take opposed ideas or attitudes well.
Which is why Ludwik feels very rebellious when he hides a version of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room in the bottom of his bag. While he’s very moved by the story, he can’t share it with anyone. He doesn’t even tell his best friend about it. But it’s important enough to keep with him.
Then he meets Janusz. Janusz moves through the fields easily, his muscles rippling and skin shining in the sun. Ludwik is entranced but doesn’t dare approach Janusz where he hangs out with his rich and popular friends.
Then he does stumble across him by accident. Ludwik is out for a walk when he finds Janusz swimming in a river, easy as can be where he slices through the water.
They get to talking and eventually Janusz invites Ludwik to go (actual) camping with him after they’ve met their agricultural requirements. Ludwik agrees and they spend a few totally magical weeks together. They go swimming, travel, claim a clearing as their temporary home, and learn each other’s bodies. Ludwik even shares his forbidden book.
Unfortunately, their holiday can’t last forever and they must return to the city. Which is a difficult enough prospect for Ludwik before Janusz reveals his party loyalty. Ludwik doesn’t understand how Janusz is ok with things as they are. People are hurt and dying. But Janusz doesn’t understand why Ludwik doesn’t just put his head down, do what he’s told and rise to the top. He believes it’s too late to change things.
Ludwik doesn’t agree but he puts the discussion aside for the sake of their relationship. A relationship that continues in the city, at parties and behind closed doors and in secret. But and as Poland struggles, so do they. Eventually, something has got to give.
Honestly, it was fascinating.
Partly because I know so little about Poland. Partly because these are real political events that happened and the 80’s were not that long ago. But I think mostly I was fascinated by the many elements of human nature Jedrowski explored.
There were so many political and socioeconomic elements involved, you had to scrape away several layers before you could even get to romance. Which I think detracted some from my ability to totally love this book.
But I would say Swimming in the Dark was well written and conveyed an incredible story. I didn’t love Janusz, although I’m not sure I was supposed to. I loved Ludwik enough that it made up for it.
Several times I felt crushed for Luwik. Like that phone call with his Grandma was so sad. Oh my gosh.
Ok. It should be fairly obvious that I recommend Swimming in the Dark for all to read. It’s beautifully done and has lots of rich social commentary that I think is important now more then ever. Please read!!!!!
And if you’re going to get it, consider getting it from Bookshop.org! This is from their about section: If you want to find a specific local bookstore to support, find them on our map and they’ll receive the full profit off your order. Otherwise, your order will contribute to an earnings pool that will be evenly distributed among independent bookstores (even those that don’t use Bookshop).
Also, side note, I was thinking of the Bad Suns’ song Swimming in the Moonlight the whole time I read this book. 10/10 would recommend Bad Suns.