The Union of Synchronized Swimmers
by Cristina Sandu
Reviewed by Megan Jones
Cristina Sandu’s second novel, The Union of Synchronised Swimmers, is a sparse and slender volume that undulates to the rhythms of six women. The novella chronicles their time spent together training for the Olympics, their subsequent escape from their homeland, and the inextricable link that binds them as they continue on separate trajectories. In its epigraph, the titular sport is described as “the threshold between floating and sinking.” Outside the water, these women still exist on the cusp–contemplating whether to keep swimming or allow themselves to be engulfed.
The novella opens with an omniscient narration, a reoccurring feature that cuts through each of the six main sections, one dedicated to each of the women in their new lives. Its opening scene details them playing in the water of an unnamed location, referred to only as The Near Side of the River. It is a state behind the Iron Curtain–the imaginary, ideological barrier separating the Soviet Union from Western influence after World War II–where poverty abounds. The men travel to the neighbouring country–the Far Side of the River–for work, whilst the women tend the farms and spend long shifts in cigarette factories. Here, the narrative’s women produce the Cheap Whites that act as black-market currency, exchanged for clothes, books, medication, and perhaps six swimming costumes. Away from the harsh simplicity of their lives, the women are free, teasing, where they “pushed each other’s heads under the surface and kept them there, as if performing a baptism.” It is against this backdrop that water becomes their sacrament.
Each narrative is fragmented, a passing series of moments in each of the women’s journeys towards freedom. Each begins with a name and a city–Anita, Helsinki; Sandra, The Pyrenees–but few other contextual details, little sense of how much time has passed since their swimming escapade. Not one narrator references their departure, this pivotal moment in their lives, or the sport that became their way out. It is as if each exists only from the moment they reached their new country, and their adolescences have been lost in their separation from The Near Side of the River, the crossing from one country to the next a cleaving of their lives. From the opening, there is a clear sense of this feeling of Otherness, first established in the “wrong” and “right” sides of the river, and later through the women’s’ experiences in countries that are not their homeland.
Sandu quietly yet intricately dissects the migrant experience and the idea of “the outsider,” in which this perceived separation underpins each of the women’s narratives. The desire to fit in–to belong–permeates their sense of self and acts as the basis of their internal conflict. Anita begins a relationship with a man from their homeland, but the moment to tell him of their shared heritage “slides past.” Instead, she crafts a false childhood and tries to “find a place” inside the Finnish culture. Meanwhile, Paulina finds a group of Americans watching her and notes, “Of course they can smell her difference.” Her realisation that their hostility is not directed at her but two brothers from Cameroon conjures a mixture of relief and guilt. Shame is another tie that binds these women together, an emotion that reoccurs in blushes and bruised hearts and pain delivered “like a flung stone.” For Nina, her once-cordial relationship with a delivery driver ends when he refers to her with a slur. Whilst each narrative remains entirely separate, there is an interwoven understanding of displacement, a shared feeling between each woman of not quite fitting in.
It is language that acts as both a barrier and haven to inclusion across the novella. A taxi driver silences Sandra with a mocking repetition of her French, reinforcing her status as an outsider, whilst Nina comes to terms with existing inside a language that is not her own–not only speaking but thinking in Italian. Fluency represents sanctuary: the opportunity for promotion. However, she feels the absence of her mother tongue, its gradual recession to the corners of her mind, and how it comes back to her, like curling up with a mug of hot tea. Anita and her lover converse in English, their lingua franca, despite sharing a common tongue. For her, sentences are used sparingly, guarded and hidden, “so the words in the wrong language don’t spill out.” This overt consideration recalls Sandu’s own relationship with multilingualism. She speaks six languages and translated The Union of Synchronised Swimmers — her first work to be published in English—from the Finnish herself. In this work, even words exist on a threshold, a borderland between one language and another.
This idea of liminality also reoccurs in the theme of transportation that exists in several of the narratives. Pauline is part of a fishing trip, whilst Sandra travels across mountainscapes in search of Paris. Betty is desperate to save for a plane ticket, and Nina watches train passengers, trying to “guess whether they are coming or going”. This focus on fluidity and the passage of time offers space for the narrative to indulge in its understated, beautiful prose:
“The landscape is made of yellowing meadows on one side and a thickening forest on the other. Grasslands slide down the valley; forest climbs up the mountain.”
These passages reinforce the sense of movement that drives the novella forwards, an embodiment of each woman’s raw and urgent need to escape, to keep running.
Potential, then, is the one element these women cannot outrun: “The beauty of the threshold: on the other side of it, everything was still possible.” This belief underpinned the six women’s drive towards the Olympics, towards freedom, and The Union of Synchronised Swimmers propels this sense of possibility into their futures, despite the novella’s concluding uncertainties. Whilst the river water they once trained in is stagnant, these women are not. It is this promise that they continue to chase and follow, because beneath Sandu’s sense of turmoil, there remains an undercurrent of hope.