Gemma Parker reviews Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks
Where We Swim
by Ingrid Horrocks
Victoria University of Wellington Press, NZ
Reviewed by GEMMA PARKER
Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks is a hybrid work of creative nonfiction, an exploratory memoir that combines travel narrative and nature writing with meditations on ecology, community and responsibility. These meditations revolve around a series of immersions in waters both local and foreign as Horrocks and her young family swim in their native Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as abroad, in Colombia, America, Australia and England. In each of these journeys, Horrocks interrogates and urges exploration of the world and of ourselves in order to begin to imagine other futures, other ways of being. Horrocks connects the waters in which they swim to deeper ecologies, and embeds her narrative in family and domestic life. This book navigates the author’s despair about a near-future that will be devastated by the effects of climate change, but also the importance of connection, community and courage.
Where We Swim begins with a solitary morning swim at Mōkau at the mouth of the estuary in the early autumn of 2017. Horrocks quickly refutes some possible presumptions we might have about this swim, about her, about this journey, about the book – she is not a strong swimmer, this book is not about mastery, but also, this is not a straightforward travel narrative. The author explains that her original plan for the book was to write about a series of swims from Wellington to Auckland, framing her search as looking at why we swim, but that she abandoned this as too rigid, too traditional. “At some point in my solo swimming journey,” she writes, “I felt there was a problem with it. It sectioned off swimming and water, and ecology, from daily life. Swimming alone seemed not to get fully to the heart of things” (p. 5). And so rather than why we swim, Horrocks weaves for us an intimate journey as she interrogates not only the waters in which we swim, but also the we, and the where.
The book is structured in chapters that revolve around family and travel, and immersions and submersions in other ways of being – other climates, languages, cultures, societies and environments. These immersions and submersions are often risky, slippery and dangerous, as Horrocks finds with her first swim at Mōkau. But they are also necessary – and it is this element of necessary risk and necessary immersion that forms the heart of the book.
After the initial swim, the book offers a series of vignettes and reflections from daily life: a visit to her parents and a swim at a local beach that hinges on a meditation on intergenerational tensions, ageing and illness, and a waterlog journal that revolves around the excitement of a whale in the local harbour. Horrocks offers a complex portrait of identity and personal responsibility, and the imperative the author feels to submerge herself in the environmental crisis – to put her body on the line, whilst embracing and interrogating the networks of knowledge and myth and the families and communities that sustain her.
The book is at its richest when Horrocks depicts her young family abroad. Travelling overseas with children is often exhausting and confusing, and Horrocks immerses us in the discomfort and anxiety of her journeys whilst allowing the travel and the place to push her into new currents, new experiences, new ways of seeing. In the Amazon, they are confronted by how little they know or understand about the journey they have undertaken. What they had assumed was a five-minute walk to their accommodation turns into a two-hour hike, without sunscreen, water or insect repellent. A chartered boat ride reveals itself to be a rickety canoe without life jackets on choppy waters. Horrocks captures these painful moments of anxiety in generous detail. Once the moments of perceived risk pass, the beauty of their surroundings floods in. The writing continues to switch like this with dizzying variety, between poetic description of the exotic locations they travel through, meditation and reflection on the ethics of adventure tourism, and Horrocks’ own navigation between allowing her children to experience the world as it is whilst trying to protect them from harm.
Where We Swim is partly about questioning our roles and responsibilities to each other and to the planet, but it is also very much about our ability to bear witness and to be curious about other ways of being. The trip to Arcosanti in Arizona is part of that quest, and Horrocks takes the time to present a complex portrait of this experimental community in the desert. Horrocks and her husband stand in the gift shop waiting for their souvenir to be wrapped as the attendant, a member of the community, begins to tell them about the charges of sexual assault that have been levelled at Arcosanti’s visionary founder, the Italian architect Paolo Soleri. They listen carefully to this young man whilst keeping an eye on their twin daughters who are wandering around the gift shop, hoping to shield the girls from this complex testimony, whilst also committing to bearing witness.
The trip to Perth involves deeper investigation into Horrocks’ research into solastalgia, environmental catastrophe, precarity and ways of writing the apocalypse. After a return to the English coastline where she once lived and studied, the book returns to the local waters of Aotearoa New Zealand, to ageing and illness, the passage of time, what we love and what we stand to lose. In the final pages of the book Horrocks is on the shore, contemplating an evening swim, and finds herself reluctant to get into the water. She asks: “Why do this – why take off layers, casing, seal? Why make oneself? Why even consider exposing limbs and hair and goosebumped skin to the sea? Why hold out my breathing life – and that of my family – like this, when one could just have stayed at home?” and then goes on to conclude: “But it has turned out that I need this – this stripping down, this immersing. It feels necessary to keep attempting it. It doesn’t now feel possible to live a life of only footpaths beneath one’s feet” (p. 194).
One of the most satisfying elements of this book is the fact that the author finished it just as the pandemic began, in 2020, and yet the final section, ‘Coda’, feels completely integrated into the entire text, the inevitable conclusion to this meditation on community, environment, travel, family, responsibility, empathy and courage. Horrocks includes a variety of scholarly and literary sources throughout the book. Some are explored over the course of pages, while some seem inadequately presented, such as Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Pip Adam’s The New Animals, which are only tantalisingly introduced. The incorrect claim that Adelaide is built on the north side of the river Torrens (p. 118) has no impact on the quality of the writing, but it does undermine the reader’s faith in the accuracy of the details that underpin the work.
Nevertheless, Where We Swim is both brave and rebellious. It grapples with ecological despair, with the complex demands of identity and responsibility, and deals honestly with the dubious ethics of tourism and travel, with hypocrisy and contradiction. It is an honest attempt at exploring the world and waters beyond the comfortable limits of a life – an especially comfortable life, as Horrocks admits. There may be elements of this book that seem under-developed or incorrect, but the core project is admirable: the author is committed to her responsibility to immerse herself, and her readers, in waters despite the risk, the danger and the discomfort.
GEMMA PARKER is an award-winning poet, teacher, PhD candidate and student member of the J M Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide. Gemma is one of the co-founders and managing editors of the new Adelaide literary journal The Saltbush Review. She lives and works on Kaurna Country in Adelaide after many years abroad.