The Third Swimmer: A Novel
by Rosalind Brackenbury
John Daniel & Company

""It seemed easier, she thinks, to be happy during the war; at least you knew what you were supposed to be doing, you had your instructions."

Set against the extraordinary struggles of England during and after World War II is the ordinary tale of a marriage beset by ambivalence, affection, secrets, despair, and hope. Thomas and Olivia meet and agree to marry before he goes to war, but only in the aftermath of their brutal separation do they marry, have four children, and try to cultivate intimacy while rebuilding body and nation.

The title refers to an event that occurs while Thomas and Olivia are on a belated honeymoon in France in 1952. When onlookers assume two people are in the sea, the truth of a third swimmer has repercussions for all. This revelation that three rather than two people comprise a certain population is an allegory for Thomas and Olivia’s fraught marriage. Only when a third party is acknowledged and identified can the spouses move forward to resolve their tensions and cross the divide that has always separated them.

This is a thoughtful and candid study of war and marriage. While war is exceptional in its tragedy and suffering, Olivia is perceptive when she acknowledges that in some ways those years of conflict were easier than the aftermath, when the demands of ordinary life, rather than the daily quest for survival, require more nuanced attention and care to prosper.

Told in a slow, steady, present-tense narration that respects reader intelligence and avoids over explaining that which is universally understood, the story of Thomas and Olivia captures authentic slices of marriage in any era, at war or peace. Even where proximity and commitment are givens, trust and intimacy in a relationship require nurturing and renewal. And sometimes, the gap between two spouses can be closed by a single truthful step.

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