‘Sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re seeing,’ Megan Kimsey remarks as she prepares to fly from Denver to Bogota at the beginning of Ginger Bensman’s ambitious novel. It’s an appropriate statement from a young woman prone not only to premonitions, but also to visions of a past life lived centuries ago in a different culture. These episodes are naturally interpreted as symptoms of mental illness by Megan’s mother, a physically attractive woman who instinctively colonizes everything and everybody, and whose need to control extends to hiring a dubious psychiatrist to cure her daughter of her hallucinations. Megan can depend on her father’s love and support, until his loss precipitates a personal crisis and the start of a quest to find the truth about herself.
To Swim Beneath the Earth is a novel of great poise and assured style. The prose is immediate, extremely detailed and tremendously tactile – the texture of materials such as rock and wool and leather is palpable – and there is barely a phrase that simply suffices, that has not been refined and rethought until it is the best it can be. The danger in making every sentence a chiseled artifact is that the writing bogs down and the narrative fails to push forward. Happily, in this novel, that danger is largely avoided.
Like many other readers of To Swim Beneath the Earth, I find the writing so impressive that it’s hard to think about anything else. Prose seldom gets this good, and we are right to dwell on it. As I progressed through the book, I hoped it could sustain its assuredness and subtlety.
The first nine chapters of To Swim Beneath the Earth describe the events leading up to Megan’s decision to fly to Bogota, and they are related by Megan herself as she sits in the aircraft. This opening sets the tone for the whole book: past-tense episodes embedded in a present-tense framework. I have rarely found the present tense congenial as a reader, but here it works beautifully, in part because it intensifies Megan’s experience and contrasts with accounts of the recent and deep past.
‘Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back’: the line from the children’s game resonates almost as naturally here as when it is quoted in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Mother – her terrible ambiguity, the love and hate she inspires – lurks mythically and malevolently in the early chapters of To Swim Beneath the Earth. She and the rest of Megan’s family – her siblings and their children, and especially her father – and the couple for whom Megan babysits are wonderfully drawn. Their interactions and the events that separate them are compelling and psychologically acute. There seemed plenty of scope for interesting developments here, and I wanted to stay with these people. Instead, they disappear from the story and we encounter a new group of characters associated with Megan’s quest.
In my opinion the novel then follows a path that causes one or two stumbles. As the quest theme takes hold, characters lose some of the depth and solidity of the early chapters and drift towards cypherhood. I also think the quest itself is not sufficiently elucidated to make it absolutely compelling, and I am uncertain about what exactly is at stake, and whether its precise outcome really matters. Neither is there sufficient conflict and setback to put its attainment in doubt. Megan gains more self-agency, yet there are times when one wishes she would learn to give as good as she gets (not that she gets that much). The novel never fails to engage seriously with its own ideas, and readers interested in Inca culture, for example, or in the exploration of metempsychosis, will find it an enthralling read. Others will regret leaving the interesting terrain of the early chapters.
And the prose is always excellent. Take this simple list of wares sold by native vendors in Saquisili on market days:
… red bananas and mandarin oranges, drifts of quinoa, rice, and corn, honeys, teas, potions and oils, jugs and dishes, stacks of straw and Panama hats, taffy and jerky hanging from lines strung between posts, the stewed heads of pigs, plucked and eviscerated poultry, sugared pastries.
This looks easy but is immensely difficult to get right – the rhythms and juxtapositions, the alliterations and dissonances have to be just so, or we are unconvinced, not present in the scene.
To criticize a novel of this quality is to pay it a compliment. After all, sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re reading or writing, just as ‘sometimes it’s hard to know what you’re seeing’. Whatever we think of the worldview expressed in this novel, To Swim Beneath the Earth is a rewarding book that deserves a loyal following. It is a beguiling read, beautifully written. I am delighted to have read it and to have learned from it.