Poland, 1980. Anxious, disillusioned Ludwik Glowacki, soon to graduate university, has been sent along with the rest of his class to an agricultural camp. Here he meets Janusz, and together they spend a dreamlike summer swimming in secluded lakes, reading forbidden books - and falling in love.
But with summer over, the two are sent back to Warsaw, and to the harsh realities of life under the Party. Exiled from paradise, Ludwik and Janusz must decide how they will survive, but their different choices risk tearing them apart.
Author Tomasz Jedrowski was born in West Germany to Polish parents, and studied law at Cambridge and the Universite de Paris. He currently lives in France. Swimming in the Dark is his first novel, and my god - what a novel it is!
James Baldwin's sublime Giovanni's Room is a key touchstone of this novel, and the two share a lot - not only themes of queer love and escape, but both are exquisetely beautiful reads full of desire, discovery, and the bittersweet pain of first love.
Whilst the Gay love story is what drew me to pick this book up, the setting is just as fascinating - taking place in Poland in 1980, and allowing the reader a glimpse into the beginnings of the turmoil that, 9 years later, saw the Polish Worker's Party fall and Poland move into a full market economy.
I like to think my historical knowledge is pretty good, but I'm woefully under informed when it comes to Poland, so it was fascinating to have such an in-depth glimpse into the country's past. In terms of tone and setting I was reminded a little of An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson - one of my favourite books of 2019, and one that also deals with a gay love story under an opressive regime. However my knowledge of german history is decent, so that book was perhaps slightly less enlightening for me on that front - whereas Swimming in the Dark genuinely opened my eyes and has made me interested in the Poland of the mid to late twentieth century, helped hugely, I imagine, by the fact that the author was born to Polish parents who I imagine would have had first hand knowledge of some of the events and situations described in the book.
Jedrowski's prose truly envelops you in the story - I felt the warm summer haze of the initial chapters turn into the cold grey later in the book, and as a Gay man myself, I felt the emotional heart of this story incredibly deeply. I grew up under a far more accepting government in nineties england, but the themes that are explored here were easily related to stuff I went through as a teenager and a young adult, and, I imagine are fairly universal. I think I fell in love with Tomasz almost as much as Ludwik did - and that's a mark of how emotionally honest the author is in his writing.
My only real gripe with this book was that it wasn't longer - but that's a gripe that comes from pure selfishness - in truth it's a well balanced tale that's told with great care. I won't forget it in a hurry, and I'm eager to see what the author does next - he's certainly one to watch for me, and Swimming in the Dark is one of my favourite reads of 2020.