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Review: Swim Home to the Vanished - Brendan Shay Basham

Genre: Magical Realism

Published: Harper Collins, August 2023

My rating: 4.5/5 stars

"When you lose someone close, you travel to the place of the dead. You enter the river, you swim in it, it takes you out to the sea. The fish seem to know."

It’s no secret that the sub-genre of books about grief, explored through a magical-realism lens has produced some of my personal favourite reading experiences ever. For that reason alone, Swim Home to the Vanished was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, that I picked up immediately upon release. This story with strong roots in Native American lore (specifically creation mythology), proved one of the more challenging, but simultaneously fascinating reads of my year so far. A story that I deeply resonated with at times, was left completely puzzled by at others, and am still not sure if I fully grasped the depth of its significance by the end.

Our story opens with Damien contemplating the right words to speak a eulogy for his brother. When Kai went into the river that faithful day, he didn’t so much die as vanish from Damiens life. With this loss heavy in his bones, Damien feels an outcast in his old life and decides to walk away from it all. After a long walk (note the significance) through the desert, he finds himself in a remote fishing village, hoping to escape his grief. He soon discovers his journey has only brought him deeper into the land of the grieving… As he’s taken in by a family of Pescadores, he soon discovers that each of the villages inhabitants carries their own grief, and is slowly being transformed by it. The more he learns about the loss this village has recently suffered, the more he is ensnared in a net of familial bonds and trauma, that threaten to drag him into the very depths that claimed his brother.

Basham is nothing if not ambitious with this multi-layered debut novel. Almost every small event in this book has a parallel in Native American mythology. From the Long Walk-like journey Damien embarks on, to the animal(spirits) the grieving characters take a liking to, to various water-connections throughout. This layering is both the novels greatest selling point, as at times its downfall. Whenever it hits, it really hits, but at other times the various element don’t fully come together and make the narrative very disjointed. It’s a challenging novel that requires some effort from the reader. In my case, that included having to look up some of the source-myths to understand the deeper connections and references made. It’s for that reason that I say that I might still not completely grasp the depth of this book, and might never as I’m not a part of the culture. That being said, Swim Home to the Vanished is so deeply intriguing and resonant on a human-level, that I was happy to dig deeper into the sources. That to me, is the sign of a fantastic novel with incredible cultural representation: the burden of informing myself was on me as the “outsider”, but I felt invited and welcome to do so, based off the shared and very human experience of grief.

From a technical point, apart from the sometimes disjointed structure, Basham’s debut is a feat as well. His writing is lyrical, poetic and resonant, but his characters interact and speak like believable humans. The novel has a strong sense of place, thanks to the environmental descriptions and vivid descriptions of the local food and smells (all of which have significance to the story). The use of magical realism is far from subtle, as each of the characters make a literal transformation towards animal characteristics, as a result of their grief. Yet in the context of the story and its mythological roots, the choice of each of these animals forms a perfect fit, and links the multiple layers of the story.

For full disclosure, I feel the need to add that this review was based off me reading the book 2x back to back, under very specific circumstances. Recent events in my personal life dragged up a grief that has settled deep within <i>my</i> bones, and made it so I didn’t fully appreciate my first read. Going back in, it intensified my immersion and positive feelings towards it, and made it into one of the more memorable reading experiences of this year.

You can find this book here on Goodreads.

1 Comment

Andres Fierro
Andres Fierro
May 10

I really enjoyed this book. It was very beautiful and powerful writing. The magical realism is fantastic. I just wrapped up A Council of Dolls and highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet.

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