‘Swimming to Elba’ by Silvia Avallone

Swimming is one of my greatest pleasures – if time allowed, I’d be in the pool or taking a dip in the sea everyday. I’ve read some memorable ‘swimming’ stories (most recently Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton and Swimming Home by Deborah Levy) however unfortunately the latest, Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone and translated by Antony Shugaar, was not one that made me reach for the cossie.

It’s the story of best friends, Anna and blonde Francesca. They’re 13-years-old, live in an impoverished seaside Italian town where unemployment, drug use, physical abuse and criminal activity is rife. The story begins at the height of summer – Anna and Francesca are just learning that their adolescent bodies wield a particular power over the boys and men in the town.

“They ran freely through the crowd, turning to look at one another, joining hands as they ran. They knew that nature was on their side; they knew they were powerful. Because in certain settings, certain places, all that matters is whether a girl is pretty. And if you’re not, if you’re a loser, you go nowhere, you have no fun. If the boys don’t write your name on the pillars in the courtyard…then you’re nobody. You’re thirteen years old, but you already wish you were dead.”

Despite this, the girls spend most of their time playing like they did as children and dreaming of swimming to Elba, a wealthy resort town across the bay.

“In the distance, two and a half miles across the water, the white beaches of the Isle of Elba gleamed like an unattainable paradise. The inviolate domain of the Milanese, the Germans, the silky-skinned tourists in black SUVs and sunglasses. But for the teenagers who lived in the huge barracks of public housing, for the children of all the nobodies dripping with sweat and blood at the steel mill, the beach across the way from their front doors was already paradise. The only real paradise.”

A handful of other characters take the story in various directions – Francesca’s brutal father who regularly physically abuses both his daughter and wife; Anna’s playboy brother; Lisa, the girl who wishes she was part of the ‘in’ crowd; and Matteo, the man who seduces Anna.

I am wondering if the rawness of Avallone’s words were lost in translation. Unfortunately I found the story disjointed, occasionally repetitive and jumped forwards and backwards in an inconsistent way. Furthermore, the constantly changing narrator, in some cases from paragraph to paragraph, was distracting.

I did like the sense of place that the author created. Set in the seaside town of Piombinao, Italy, the scenes describing the beach, the rundown apartment buildings, the steel mill and the town were good – I could smell the rotting seaweed, see the mangy stray cats and feel the gritty air at the mill.

“…the ruins of a smokestack. Farther on, an abandoned industrial shed. In the middle, an excavator with a twisted arm and an upside-down bucket. Dead and seething with heat.”

“She loved the feel of that sea bottom, rough and soft at the same time….underwater, where the noises of the world became a placenta, where the salt burns your corneas, where the only sound you can hear is your own breathing, no longer yours.”

There’s probably a lot to be explored in this book about mother-daughter relationships, friendships between girls and women, and being on the cusp of adolescence. However, while the characters were strong, I didn’t become invested in their story.

2/5 Lost in translation? Perhaps.

I received my copy of Swimming to Elba from the publisher, Penguin via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

There were surprisingly few food references in this story – where was all the pizza, pasta and gelato?! The most appealing was mention of spaghetti with clams. Try this recipe for Linguine con le Vongole (Linguine with Clam Sauce).


6 responses

    • I think my expectations were too high before I started it. I don’t normally question translations figuring they get the best person they can to do the job but in this case the language seemed inconsistent. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

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  3. I’m Italian and I’m just reading this book in my own language. I have to admit that, according to the excerpts you posted here, there’s definitely a translation issue. The original writing is sharp and profound, while I find the English version so dull and simplistic. Moreover, I don’t understand the comment on the ‘food references’: do you think Italians are always thinking about cuisine, pasta, pizza and mozzarella? Sorry, but this sounds so incredibly clichéd, we’re a lot of different things, and I can’t see why you should expect to find food descriptions in every single Italian book!

    • I suspected the translation has lots to answer for!

      My food references aren’t restricted to Italian books – I accompany each of my reviews with a dish or food mentioned in the book, details that I’m always interested in.

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