At Swim, Two Boys
a book review by Shannon
Jamie O’Neill’s 2001 novel about the relationship between two teenage boys, their friendship and their love, takes place in Ireland in 1916. The timeframe and plot points of the book are centred between spring 1915 and Easter 1916 – the weekend of the Easter Rising, an insurrection designed to end British rule of Ireland.
The most important aspect of the book is the development of the love story between the two main characters. Doyler, 18, a patriotic supporter of Irish independence, and Jim, 16, a naïve and endearing boy who thinks he may have a “vocation” – a call to be a monk. The boys are known to each other when the story opens, but become close through two series of events. The first is when Doyler joins a boys’ marching band to which Jim belongs, and for which they both play flute. The second is when Doyler takes Jim to the Forty Foot “Gentlemen’s Bathing Area”. The boys make a pact that Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and they will together make the dangerous swim to the Muglins, a rocky island out in Sandycove Bay, to plant a flag and claim it for Ireland.
Written as a “stream of consciousness”, the narration changes fluidly throughout the novel, at times running all over you like tide. The author has done beautiful things with this style, which at first I found slightly hard going, but which quickly became an internal voice in my own head. O’Neill really does a masterful job of linking the message with the media – the watery, swimming theme of the novel with the flowing, running, washing style of narration. Like Jim, it does take the reader a little while to find our stroke. By the time Doyler congratulates Jim “You’re in the swim!”, so are we readers – and there’s no putting the book down after that.
As Dave said in his book club announcement for this novel, “…the realities of people with disabilities are worth a look. The books aren’t ABOUT disability...” That’s certainly true of “Two Boys”. Doyler walks with a limp, which he claims is the result of an injury during a fight between policemen and newsboys in Dublin. “He wouldn’t mind an odd limp getting it some way useful like that.” In fact, his stepfather irreparably damaged him during a beating administered with the leg of a broken chair.
Doyler’s limp is most prominent during the first third of the book. Well, I say “prominent” – in fact it’s never prominent. As theme elements go, it doesn’t have much to do with the character as we understand him. It does affect him, though, and has shaped his life. At a time when men of his social class (his family lives in a one-room shanty with an earthen floor, his mother takes in washing, and his stepfather sells newspapers when he isn’t falling down with drink and tuberculosis) would be doing hard physical work in order to bring a wage home to the family, his injury relegates him to being the “dungman’s monkey” – the boy who carries a household’s sewage out in bucketfuls and takes it away in a cart. “Vile job that. Vile smell. Murder on the lungs, day in day out.” Beginning with Jim’s father, whose midden is being emptied, the characters notice Doyler’s limp. He explains it a few times – again the lie about being hit by a policeman while taking part in a newsboys’ strike.
As the novel progresses, though, Doyler’s limp is mentioned less and less often. Reading, you notice this omission briefly, but the events of the novel, the love story and its complications, take precedence and crowd the limp out of your mind.
One incident quite late in the novel, at least a few hundred pages after the last mention, someone sees Doyler from far away and recognizes his halting gait. But in the meantime, it just isn’t there.
As the novel moves forward towards the climax of the Easter Rising, the reader gets very caught up in the relationships between the characters. Their feelings for one another are strong, and all the stronger for being culturally suppressed.
And it’s not about disability. Not at all.
Not even a little bit.
It’s a lyrical, rhythmic poem to love and friendship. It’s about humans adapting, and figuring out their relationships, changing what doesn’t work, and getting on with their lives. It’s about people loving each other and making sacrifices and finding joy. And if one of these people limps through his life’s journey, that makes it all the more real.
So…I guess it is about disability, after all.
Quotes from “At Swim, Two Boys”, by Jamie O’Neill, Simon & Schuster UK, 2002