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Samantha Warwick. Sage Island.

Samantha Warwick. Sage Island. Calgary: Brindle & Glass, 2008. 227 pp. Paper. $19.95.

Few athletic endeavors appear more readily translated into the translucent shimmer of poetic language than competitive swimming--the elegant movement, the marine silences beneath the surface during otherwise fierce competition, the dynamic of muscle in environments that, unlike ball fields or courts, are themselves radiant and eerie. The sport, of course, has generated few landmark works of fiction that seek to put into words the rush and thump of competitive swimming. Here, is a noble gesture, just such a mythology. Samantha Warwick is a retired Canadian swimmer and coach with the heart of a poet. Certainly, there is a compelling narrative, a work of historic realism set in Jazz Era Manhattan environs that are themselves engrossed by the drama of sports and the mythologizing of athletes. Warwick has a savvy sense of detail, capturing a New York that long ago staled into literary cliche and Hollywood convention--here is a throbbing and lively rendering of the celebration of the moment that Warwick reconfigures into her metaphor for athletic endeavor itself. Savanna Mason, based on a historic character, is approaching 20 and aware that, as a competitive swimmer, her best days are most likely past her already; she struggles in the formidable shadow of Gertrude Ederle, the legendary grande dame of swimming whose conquering of the English Channel was only one of a remarkable career of swimming achievements. Warwick taps into one of those most intriguing sports dynamics that is so little treated in literature: the struggle against a formidable Other, what it feels like to know that any other time, any other place, you'd be the world's best. It is here that Warwick is about the business of allowing the Lovable Loser, the Valiant Runner-Up, to reclaim the most significant triumph of all: her soul. Spiritually enervated by the relentless and very public friction of competitive swimming, Savi Mason abandons Manhattan and seeks her spiritual essence by competing in a grueling 22-mile competitive swim off the coast of Catalina. Her decision to engage such a monumental athletic enterprise, one that pits her self against her soul (the other swimmers quickly fade into irrelevance as the narrative becomes a transcendental search for Mason's own spirit). With confidence and the elegance of one who knows the sublimity and anxiety of long distance swimming, Warwick creates a compelling read--one full of unexpected twists and fascinating characters who comes to play a significant part in Savi Mason's reclamation. But apart from the engrossing characters and the spot-on recreation of the first era of opulence in American sports, Warwick brings to fiction a striking and terribly engaging meditation on the authentic meaning of victory. The pace is brisk, the plot commanding, the characters vivid and sympathetic, the philosophy never intrusive, never ladled on. And best we get a fascinating sense of how the grace and power of swimming feels--that is perhaps the achievement of the book.

Cindy Sherman

Swimming Coach, Fairfax (IL) College
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Author:Sherman, Cindy
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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