If reading can be likened to swimming, one glides through this memoir as if in a single length. But it must have been effortful to write – and, at the beginning, to live. I had approached Leap In cautiously – had not leapt in at all – assuming it to be a publisher’s initiative, a calculated sequel to Heminsley’s recent bestseller Running Like a Girl. This new book claims to be about overcoming fear of the sea, about which I initially felt: so what? Why should I be interested that Alexandra Heminsley used to be frightened of the sea or that she chose to swim in Brighton, where she lives, on her wedding day?
But as early as page 18, I had waded in with her – and this was because the book does not evolve as expected. On Heminsley’s return from honeymoon, she reports that Brighton’s sea is no longer hospitable. “It’s so much colder than last week!” she shouts to her husband. He, observing his chilled fingers, remarks that his wedding ring looks enormous. A moment later: “a huge wave hit him from behind and, almost in slow motion, the ring flew off into the sea”. With this theft, everything else becomes unpredictable – including the book’s trajectory.
Heminsley describes her husband dashing to their flat for his goggles, the futile dives to rescue the ring. Then, the following day, they visit the jeweller to buy a replacement and one of the jewellers inquires: “Was it the sea?”
They learn that the sea makes a habit of helping itself to rings. A day or two later their flat is flooded and, by this time, there is an no escaping the realisation that water can seem to behave with spiteful intent: “Thief of rings, wrecker of homes, menace to married life. I hate it.”
It was partly the vivid writing about the sea as adversary that left cynicism high and dry. But it was also this: even if it started as a publisher’s calculation, this is a book that turns out to be about everything in life that cannot be calculated. Heminsley responds to life’s uncertainty by becoming decisive: “The grit was in the oyster now. It was the sea versus me…” She enrols herself on an open-water beginners’ course at Brighton Swimming School, not a place for “recreational splashing” but for “serious business”.
Serious though it proves, she does not lose her knack for sending herself up – her fight with a wetsuit is the stuff of cartoon: “All I had managed to do was create a baguette-width roll of wetsuit just beneath my hips; an unwelcome arse-shelf. The spongy flesh that made up my haunches was now sitting in a magnificent display of rococo arse-cleavage above the neoprene corsetry.” Her dismay at her body produces other pitiless images: “my white thighs under the greenish lighting looked flaccid and soft to the touch like an old peeled onion”. And yet, what gradually emerges is that swimming is about to liberate her from her hypercritical body image. Swimming is democratic. Swimmers come – like fish – in all sizes. Appearance turns out to be a non-issue.
Learning to swim is about learning to exhale – and there are false starts, including an experiment with putting her face in a washing-up bowl (a tip from a former boss). She has a talent for writing about the disagreeable in an enjoyable way and knows how to create tension. This is especially true of her first river swim: 3.8km down the Arun, in West Sussex, a river she does not know. She arrives to find a group of swaggering blokes: “I don’t know if they realise how intimidating they can be. Is it part of the warm-up to throw yourself around, flashing your expensive kit and thwacking passing strangers in the eye with a flick of your rucksack?” The grey sky, on the big day, is like a “piece of scummy old Tupperware” and neurosis kicks in. One starts to feel sick on her behalf.
But once she is off, placing herself behind the macho crowd, she is entranced: “The water was greener than I had ever seen in the sea. It was the colour and opacity of a piece of glass, washed up, jewel-like on the shore. With every stroke I took, I could clearly see the waxy red of my nail polish dancing through the green of the water, a thousand tiny bubbles in its wake each time. It was mesmerising, almost Christmassy.” She hauls herself out of the river exhausted yet triumphant. “It is ever possible to defy our expectations of ourselves,” she confides.
The question that is only partly answered is: what drives Heminsley? It seems that swimming is her way of taking on uncertainty – “you can never be sure of anything” – and she reveals a pressing reason for needing to accept this. Her gruelling experiences of IVF form the background to her epic swim from Cephalonia to Ithaca, spurred on by a love of Greek mythology. She also quotes Tennyson: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Swimming is about being in charge: “You are boat, cargo and crew.” Later, she goes on a solitary swim in the Lake District, describing the black water as the “espresso of fear”, and, later still, takes a spooky night swim in Brighton. She is resolved: “life can’t be spent as a spectator; we have to get in and take part”.
Her swimming story ends slightly abruptly and is followed by a brief history of swimming, full of diverting facts. In Everard Digby’s De Arte Natandi/The Art of Swimming (1587), we are educated about Tudor armbands, made from pig’s intestines; we learn about the arrival, in 1844, of Ojibwa Native Americans on horseback at High Holborn baths, where they had been invited to show off their swimming prowess; and we discover that there were plenty of suffragette swimmers – somehow no surprise.
There are practical chapters on front crawl and swimming kit (she got me thinking about psychedelic silicone caps) but she is no apparatchik. She homes in on a matronly woman – a brilliant swimmer – who stitches faded towels together as her after-swim kit.
The nicest thing about this book is its unfussy evangelism. Its intention is that we leap in too. It sets a remarkable example, and by the end it could not be more obvious: the true grit is not in the oyster but in Heminsley herself.
• Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley is published by Hutchinson (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99