The Storm Swimmer is a contemporary Middle Grade novel with a fantasy element which explores issues of homelessness, family secrets and the importance of communication.
This is primarily the story of Ginika, an eleven year old of Nigerian heritage who in the summer between primary and secondary school finds herself unexpectedly ripped away from her familiar London landscape and sent to live with her maternal grandparents at their boarding house, Cormorant Heights, in Bridleways Bay. She had been looking forward to a carefree summer in the shadow of the Docklands Light Railway, rehearsing dance routines with her best friend Alisha, but now must adapt to life in a seaside town three hundred miles away. Moreover, she fails to understand why she cannot live with her parents in their camper van after their eviction from the flat that she has always known as home, and feels that she has been abandoned rather than given a chance to escape some of their hardships. Ginika realises that her parents are in more trouble than they are telling her, but the lack of communication results in fractured trust between her and the adults caring for her, leaving her full of frustration and resentment.
Spending the first day of her enforced “holiday” lying on the sand close to the water’s edge, Ginika spots a strange looking boy gliding through the waves with the ease of a dolphin. As subsequent days pass, she begins to develop a tentative friendship with this boy who appears to live in the sea, communicates in clicks and odd sounds, is dressed in seaweed and has webbed fingers and toes. A conversation with her grandad introduces her to the local legend of sea people who are said to visit the bay and thus begins aa adventure with Peri which will force Ginika to confront her deepest fears.
Integral to the narrative are two other tweens; Scarlett whose parents run the holiday park and Ted who is on an organised holiday at the park with other young hospital patients and their families. Ted is using a wheelchair as he recovers from treatment for a tumour on his spine and can empathise with Ginika’s feeling of being “other” in the small seaside community where she is the only person with black skin and Afro hair. On the surface Scarlett appears overly confident, always talking, always surrounded by a posse of three Olivias who are all on holiday at the caravan park and manipulating them and Ginika for her own convenience. However, as her story is explored, readers begin to see that she is probably quite lonely, with her parents and older sister working non-stop all summer to put on the best service for their guests; reliant on temporary friendships with holiday makers and manifesting her own rejection in controlling behaviour. We get a glimpse into her underlying kindness when she reprimands the Olivias for their inappropriate behaviour in commenting on and touching Ginika’s hair in one incredibly claustrophobic scene.
My impression is that the novel is written in an interestingly fractured style which I think highlights the sense of dislocation that Ginika is experiencing and that Peri must encounter to a far greater degree when he is transported from his usual environment to explore the town’s attractions with his human companion. (The book designers have kindly provided a map – always a positive feature for me – which is helpful during this section of the story). The slow process of working out how to communicate is a reflection of the need for Ginika to work out a way to communicate with her own family and the best friend that she has left behind in London. The undercurrents of secrets and unspoken fears swirl around the story and are as likely to knock the protagonists off balance as the undertow in Bridleways Bay. I liked the way that Ginika’s fears about predators which might harm Peri ran in parallel to her parents’ problems with loan sharks. The tension in the final third of the story blows up with the rapidity of a summer storm and the resolve of all three young protagonists is stretched to the limits as they try to reunite Peri with his family.
This is a story which is ideal for children of 11+ and really nicely fills the crossover gap between the final terms of primary school and the first year of secondary school. I would recommend it to Year 6 and Year 7 teachers for classroom book choices and the both primary and secondary school librarians. There is a short section at the end of the story where author Clare Weze provides background information on the natural history and science which underpins the adaptations that could allow Peri and the sea people to survive in a saline environment. This is pitched at just the right level to be understood by children in Year 6 and above and I am sure will interest those readers who have a fascination with science and the natural world.
I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Liz Scott for sending me a copy of The Storm Swimmer in advance of publication on January 19th 2023.