Swimlit: Gillian Best’s The Last Wave is a love letter to the sea

Friday, August 11, 2017


I don’t understand the sea. Not one bit. I grew up in my neighbourhood pool, and in Ontario lakes, and the thought of a shifting shoreline, not to mention undertows, is disorienting, terrifying even. I also can’t read a tide table to save my life. When I hiked the West Coast Trail at 18, I got caught not once, not twice, but three times on the beach with the tides coming in, scrambling up slippery ladders, soaked to my knees.

But if there’s anyone who could convince me of sea swimming, it’s Canadian-born, Bristol-based author Gillian Best. In her debut novel, The Last Wave, Martha, a devoted ocean swimmer who wears the second skin of her bathing suit tan for most of her life, never once steps foot in a pool. “The sea is alive, expansive; a pool is dead and confining. The sea is freedom. There is nothing in a pool: no current, no tide, no waves, and most of all, no history,” Best writes.

In the book, Martha swims to escape just about everything—the drudgery of motherhood, the mind numbingly boring tasks of being a housewife and is so well crafted, when I spoke to Best this week, I had to keep myself from asking how Martha was doing.

Best laughed. “She’s like an imaginary friend to me, too,” she says. “She’s good, she’s doing well.”

Martha doesn’t just swim in the sea, she crosses the English Channel nine (!) times (with one failed attempt). The book traces her swimming journey from 1947 until the present day and includes her Channel swims, estrangement, dementia and a devastating cancer diagnosis.

Best writes: “Gliding through the water almost completely submerged had always been a retreat to a different world for me. Swimming front crawl allowed me to focus inward, blocking everything else out—and the absolute quiet it afforded was unique. No other solitude—not going to the library, not sitting on a bench by myself—allowed my mind to wander so freely, roaming the wilds of my fantasies and the hundreds of other lives I imagined for myself.”

Swimming has also provided sanctuary for Best, the sea omnipresent in her life as well. As a 12-year-old, she spent time visiting San Francisco with her father. “I was always the first one in the ocean and the last one dragged out,” she says. She would collect small bottles of seawater and take them back to land-locked Waterloo with her so she could smell the briny sea during the “grim” Ontario winters and “be transported.”

She believed for years she’d be a professional surfer – something she laughs about now – but realized that it wasn’t surfing she was obsessed with, but the ocean. “It’s a holy experience, how people relate to water,” she says.

After years of swimming competitively, and lifeguarding and teaching swimming, Best moved to Toronto for university and was diagnosed with painful arthritis, a type in which, she describes, her spine and hips are trying to fuse. She began swimming again and says it has saved her time and time again. “I can be limping and hobbling on land, but as soon as I’m in the water, I can move again.”

“For me, water is physical freedom,” she says.

Though Best wrote about the English Channel, and ocean swimming and the power and fortitude of the sea, she admits she’s a pool swimmer herself.

“When I was living in London, I used to swim at London Fields Lido,” she says, a 50m outdoor pool in east London. It’s heated, year round and Best tells me about swimming in the snow on the few snowy days in London. (Check out these amazing photos from The Guardian!) 

“I prefer the wonderful incongruity of a pool in downtown London to Hampstead Heath or the Pond,” she says.

And because I ask every swimmer I met, I asked her if she has any other favourite swimming holes:
1). Her brother’s secret swimming hole in Guelph that he takes her to every time she’s home for a visit (I press for details, but she says she has no directional sense so this one remains a secret!)

2). The Hart House Pool at the University of Toronto: “It’s just so beautiful,” she says.

3). The 25m outdoor pool in her mom’s neighbourhood in Waterloo. “I went for a swim the day I arrived from the UK,” she says. “And it’ll be the last thing I do when I leave, on my way to the airport."

A swimming kindred spirit if I’ve ever known one.

~

Best will be launching the book in Toronto or Waterloo next week (swimwear option!):

Toronto: Monday, August 14 at 7pm at Glad Day Bookshop (499 Church St).
Free event; everyone is welcome.

Waterloo: Tuesday, August 15th at 7pm at Wordsworth Books (96 King Street South






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