I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice review – when the sea is your saviour

A writer’s moving tale of how she found solace from family trauma in the cold waters of the Irish Sea

Ruth Fitzmaurice was 32 when her husband, the film-maker Simon Fitzmaurice, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008. She had put her own writing ambitions on hold to look after three small children; his career was just taking off. Suddenly, he was given four years to live and far less time to function normally. They survived by insisting on their capacity for creative and procreative life. They conceived twins; he began work on his first feature film, I Love Emily; she started, tentatively, to write about their life – and she swam.

Almost every day since that time, Fitzmaurice has congregated with two friends, Michelle (whose husband, Galen, is also in a wheelchair, following an accident) and Aifric, to swim at their local cove near her house in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Amid crashing winter waves, this “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club” allows these women to forget their troubles through the pleasurable pain of the water. On nights with a full moon, they swim naked.

Fitzmaurice’s book is the latest in a growing genre of what Rose George (following Jenny Landreth) recently termed “waterbiographies”: books in which the author, often a woman, tries to work out something in her life through swimming in beautiful, often inhospitable waters. Best known at the moment is Amy Liptrot, who swam in the Atlantic off Orkney as she battled to free herself from alcoholism in The Outrun. In 2011, Olivia Laing walked and swam her way along the river Ouse, recentring herself through the contact with water that took her to “some other world, adjacent to our own”. In the past month, we’ve had Victoria Whitworth looking for seals while swimming in Orkney, and Jessica J Lee swimming her way through the 52 lakes of Berlin to recover from depression.

What is it about wild swimming that appeals to the vulnerable? Does it offer particular appeal to women? There’s the joy of suddenly feeling your body weightless, immersed in a new element. Rebecca West compared this to the pleasure of sex, insisting on living nearby to a swimming pool in old age.

Where the expanse of water is large, there’s the freedom of endlessness. And there are hormonal benefits. Jessica J Lee writes about her need for the endorphins released by cold water. Apparently she’s met opiate users who claim that heroin replicates the effects of cold water swimming.

For Fitzmaurice there’s also, crucially, the communality of swimming with friends. Her title is a response to an acquaintance who suggested that in choosing a home it matters less what the house is like than who is nearby: “Find your tribe.” For many years, Fitzmaurice found her tribe in her family, living remotely and self-sufficiently. After Simon’s illness hit, she began to need a new tribe, and this is when she found her swimming club. “The cove is my tribe and the cove is mine,” she writes.

“Tribe” is a loaded word that raises the question of whether it’s possible to be a member of two tribes at once. Certainly, Fitzmaurice’s family seem to have experienced rivalry in relation to her watery life. The most moving parts of the book address the inevitable feelings of separation that occur in even the happiest of marriages when one person is incapacitated by an illness that has left him able to communicate only by moving his eyes. She describes the sorrow with which she left the marital bed: “When machinery, air mattresses and tubes distort distances between you, how do you hold on to your wolf bond?” And she talks about how the fearlessness induced in her by the sea takes her away from the more fearful world of her dying husband. “The more I breathe in time to the ocean, the more Simon and I seem to be out of synch.”

There isn’t much analysis of these conundrums. This reads as a book written to survive, which doesn’t therefore have the extra layer of questioning that comes with time. Personally, I find the notion of the family as tribe unappealing and was relieved when the focus of the book moved away from the rather saccharine scenes of contented family life.

I wondered what Fitzmaurice had gained through this unwilling but nonetheless clearly fulfilling shift, and would have liked to hear more about this. But perhaps the fact that the book exists at all is testament to her guilty relief in discovering who she could be outside the home. One day, she writes, “pain will lift and I might miss it… Where would I be without the dark, raging waves and the torture?” Here she seems to recognise that the loss, however horrible, has made her a writer. Her writing, like her loyalty to the sea, is a necessary disloyalty that enables her to remain loyal to the dying man she loves.

Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury).

I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy for £11.24 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


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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