A woman must leave her island home to search for her missing sister-and confront the haunted history of her family.
Magdalena does not panic when she learns that her younger sister has disappeared. A free-spirit, Jadranka has always been prone to mysterious absences. But when weeks pass with no word, Magdalena leaves the isolated Croatian island where their family has always lived and sets off to New York to find her sister. Her search begins to unspool the dark history of their family, reaching back three generations to a country torn by war.
A haunting and sure-footed debut by an award-winning writer, The First Rule of Swimming explores the legacy of betrayal and loss in a place where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, and where individuals are forced to make wrenching choices as they are swept up in the tides of history.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.38(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.18(d)|
About the Author
Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness: And Other Storiesnamed a 2003 Best Book by the Chicago Tribune, a Notable Book by the New York Times, and a Barnes & Noble Discover pick. Her memoir The Stone Fields was shortlisted for the Freedom of Expression Award by the Index on Censorship. Brkic has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University, and lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The First Rule of Swimming
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Courtney Angela Brkic
All rights reserved.
Although it had been over sixty years since the occupation—and more than four thousand miles separated her from Rosmarina—Nona Vinka was convinced that the reprisal would take place that afternoon. A few unlucky souls would be rounded up in the village and taken to the Devil's Stones, just beyond Rosmarina's harbor. The distant crack of gunshots would break the hushed silence of the riva, and then those same rowboats would return without their cargo, the oarsmen unable to meet the eyes of the few who waited there. This was why she had ordered her American grandson to hide beneath her bed.
She sat above him, so tiny that the mattress did not sag beneath her weight and her feet barely touched the floor. She was crocheting something, a cream-colored length that grew steadily in her hands as Jadranka observed her from the doorway. On the television across the room, a woman with very white teeth was advertising something: a bar of American soap, perhaps, or breakfast cereal. But there was no sound, and the set seemed to function solely as a source of light. Its flickering caught the darting of the crochet hook as it passed in and out of the wool.
At six, Christopher was still willing to humor his grandmother in a way his older sister, Tabitha, would not. He had wedged himself obligingly beneath the bed and grinned at Jadranka from between Nona Vinka's slippered feet.
"Is it fascists or communists this time?" Jadranka asked him, noting that the older woman did not look up at these English words.
"Fascists," he told her, although he appeared uncertain. In recent months, his grandmother had regressed into a dialect so thick that he needed his adult cousin to translate. Nonetheless, he understood the insistence of her hands, the way she lifted the coverlet and motioned him into that hiding place, her voice entreating him to be silent.
Nona Vinka had lived in America since 1977. By all accounts, she used to speak English, something even Christopher's sister remembered. "Da veels on da bus go rount and rount," Tabitha would sometimes sing, but the blank expression on the older woman's face made it clear that she never understood this joke.
Jadranka wondered if the English words were simply gone, or trapped beneath sludge so thick that they only sometimes made it to the surface. "Apples," the older woman had surprised them all by saying last week, then proceeded to laugh uproariously at this word. But when Jadranka cut up an apple, removing the skin so that it did not get stuck in Nona Vinka's dentures, she merely looked perplexed.
She spent most of her time conversing with her dead sisters, unable to grasp that she and Luka were the last of their siblings to remain. And when Jadranka tried to explain that even her grandfather had suffered a stroke the year before, the older woman only nodded sagely. "Have you seen my brother?" she asked a moment later. "It's getting dark."
But while Luka lay insensate on Rosmarina, Nona Vinka had become an adroit time traveler. In one moment she was off to tend the goats, and in the next UDBA assassins were lying in wait for her husband in the bushes outside their house.
It always took Jadranka a moment to catch on to her role; sometimes she was one of Vinka's sisters, sometimes a childhood friend from the island. It was easier to play along, even as she was observed by those sharp, black eyes but never really seen.
But today it was clear that the older woman was more terrified than nostalgic, that she had averted her eyes from the figure lurking in the doorway. And so Jadranka walked slowly into the bedroom and sat beside her on the bed. "What are you making?" she asked softly in the island's dialect.
The crochet hook stopped in midair. "It's for the baby," Vinka said, holding up the rectangular length for Jadranka's inspection.
For this anonymous baby, she crocheted day and night. Blankets, booties, caps: she turned out more woolens than a factory, garments that filled brown paper bags and which her daughter donated to charity.
Jadranka knew nothing about crocheting—had not been patient enough to learn something as simple as sewing on a button, though her grandmother had attempted to teach her several times—but she admired her great-aunt's even stitching aloud. "That's very pretty," she told her.
The hook began to move again, and Jadranka watched it go in, then out. Beneath the bed, Christopher was so quiet that Jadranka suspected he had fallen asleep. She thought that she could feel his even breath on her ankles.
After a moment of silence, Nona Vinka shifted beside her on the bed. "Are they gone?" she whispered, her eyes once again avoiding the doorway.
Jadranka studied that empty space. "They left hours ago," she assured her.
Jadranka had arrived in New York in January, when the weather was so raw that her cousin immediately took her shopping for a new winter coat.
"I have a coat," Jadranka protested.
But Katarina only looked skeptically at the three-year-old peacoat Jadranka had brought with her. "That will let the wind go right through you," she said, browsing the coat racks in Saks Fifth Avenue. "And the stuff they make over there is shitty quality."
She selected a down-filled coat that reached past Jadranka's knees, then tied the belt so tightly that it forced the breath from her lungs. When she turned Jadranka to face the store's mirror, the reflection's red hair was startling against the charcoal color of the coat. "You're not on a small island anymore," Katarina told her softly, resting her chin on the younger woman's shoulder.
Jadranka was tempted to point out that she had bought the peacoat in Italy and that winters were cold even on Adriatic islands, but she had already realized that it was useless. In Katarina's mind they were all trapped in amber on Rosmarina, a place she knew as much from her parents' descriptions as from a single childhood trip in 1984.
The cousins had not seen each other in more than twenty years, although they continued to exchange letters. Jadranka and Magdalena had taken turns answering this older American cousin whose details of slumber parties and ice-skating classes were as remote to them as life on Mars.
Last year, it was that distant correspondent who boldly suggested that Jadranka come to America. It will be good for everyone involved, Katarina had written, their exchange of letters having outlasted communism. You've always wanted to travel and this way the children can practice their Croatian which, I warn you, is terrible.
This was not false modesty, Jadranka discovered upon arrival. Christopher and Tabitha paid no attention to tense or case. They drawled through vowels and swallowed the ends of all their sentences. It clearly bothered their mother, but their father was an American who understood next to nothing of his wife's native tongue, and so they had grown up primarily in English.
Jadranka did not point out that Katarina's Croatian was also rusty. Her family had emigrated before her fifth birthday, and today there was an antiquated quality to the way she spoke, her vocabulary trapped in the time warp of her parents' generation. She speaks like someone's grandma, Jadranka told her sister in a letter, feeling guilty as she wrote the words because it was clear that their cousin felt cheated of the island.
"It was easier for you and your sister," Katarina had told her, not long after her arrival. "At least you knew your places in the world."
But it was precisely because Jadranka was not sure of her place in the world that she had agreed to come. Most other women of twenty-seven—at least the ones she knew on Rosmarina—were wives and mothers. They cut recipes from the pages of magazines and were already making costumes for school pageants. While such domesticity left her cold, Jadranka could not escape the feeling that she was missing something. She did nothing more than drift from one job to the next, alternately typing letters or putting dresses on mannequins, sometimes on Rosmarina, but more frequently on the mainland, where she had grown accustomed to her anonymity. Most of her possessions—except for her paintings—could be packed into a few cardboard boxes, and she had never felt the slightest inclination to get married.
The problem, as she saw it, was that nobody had yet demonstrated a viable alternative for how to live. Her grandmother, though happy in her marriage of many decades, belonged to a generation as different from Jadranka's as the earth is from the sky. She lived only to cook and feed her flock. To mend. To clean. To tend her garden. By contrast, Jadranka's mother considered herself a modern woman. But she had been miserable since her second husband abandoned her, and she would sometimes inform Jadranka that a woman without a man was nothing. "What's wrong with you and your sister?" she would demand. "It's not natural to be alone."
Even Magdalena had settled down, in her own fashion. She had adopted a tight schoolteacher chignon and the crisp blouses that Jadranka considered evidence of her capitulation. She slept in the same whitewashed room on Rosmarina that the sisters had once shared, a room that Jadranka found so far removed from reality that it was like entering the set of a film being shot about their childhood.
"I don't know how your sister stays sane living there," Katarina had commented. "Of all people, I expected her to have larger ambitions."
This had annoyed Jadranka, for while she agreed in sentiment, she did not consider her American cousin equipped to understand Magdalena's choices. Katarina, who had married a rich man and whose maid vacuumed their home with a special machine as efficient as it was noiseless.
Katarina's ambitions, on the other hand, were on full display: in her understated designer clothing and expertly cut hair, in the collection of blue glass in her living room and the brocade chairs that, she had twice explained, were upholstered with silk from Assam silkworms, the best and most industrious in the world.
"You're more like me," she had told Jadranka drunkenly one night, at an opening in her gallery where amorphous sculptures copulated on various surfaces. "You understand that life is short."
The ephemeral nature of life had not been the reason for Jadranka's trip to America, however. Nor ambition, nor the limbo of home, although it was true that in the months before her departure she had started to feel like a fish that merely traveled the circumference of its bowl. It was the picture of the empty room that her cousin sent, the bait dangling at the end of Katarina's hook. No more than ten paces across, it had one window and a wooden floor whose scars Jadranka could make out even in the grainy photograph. It resembled nothing so much as a prison cell, but it took Jadranka's breath away.
It's empty, Katarina had written to her. We've only ever used it for storage, but it would make a perfect studio. You'd have plenty of time to do your work. And I can help arrange the visa and pay for your ticket.
When Jadranka relayed this information to Magdalena, her sister was surprised. "If that's what you want, we can find something on the island," she protested. "Why would you go all the way to America for that?"
Jadranka could already see the wheels in her sister's head turning, planning to empty one of the rooms at their fishing camp, perhaps, or to find her a room somewhere in the village. "No," she told her shortly.
Their cousin's Manhattan brownstone was large and beautifully furnished, with slate showers and a gigantic stainless steel refrigerator. Paintings by well- known New York artists hung on the walls, and everywhere were silky Persian rugs so large that if they were to rise like the carpet in the story of Aladdin, they would be capable of transporting multitudes. But it was the tiny third-floor studio that was Jadranka's favorite room, its rough wooden planks now spattered with paint. Blue dots like electric lights extended in a line, and she had tracked crimson footprints into all the room's corners like the scene of a crime. She went there whenever she could: when the children were in school or in summer camp, or after Katarina and her husband returned in the evenings. Each time she closed the door behind her, she experienced the same weightlessness at being alone.
Only someone who had spent a lifetime sharing rooms with other people would be capable of understanding it. Not Katarina, who had grown up an only child. Not Tabitha or Christopher, who slept in separate rooms and whose conjoined play area was outfitted with duplicates of everything: bookshelves, beanbags, art supplies so luxurious that they made Jadranka, a grown woman, envious.
Since Jadranka's birth, there had always been another person present as she drifted off to sleep: her sister, assorted boyfriends, roommates too numerous to count. Before coming to America, she had been staying with their mother in her one-room apartment in Split, an experiment Magdalena predicted would end in disaster.
A chain-smoker and world-class snorer, their mother snooped during Jadranka's absences, sometimes resurrecting items indignantly from the garbage. "There's nothing wrong with this," she would say, waving an old nail file or battered shoe when Jadranka returned. Her mother, who professed to find privacy a perplexing notion of the young but who—Jadranka had special reason to know—guarded her own secrets with the ferocity of an attack dog.
Best of all, Katarina had given her a key for the room, and the space was hers alone.
Katarina had her own studio on the house's first floor, although she seldom went there. She had shown it to Jadranka once: a large, airy room with floor-to- ceiling windows that let in radiant light. Chrome lamps hung from the ceiling, and there was a large table of dark wood whose surface was entirely unmarked. It looked, Jadranka had thought in awe, like something from the pages of a magazine.
Christopher was less fascinated with his mother's studio than with Jadranka's narrow, locked room. He thought that something mysterious transpired there, although she had explained about the painting. He did not understand why she could not draw with them at the special table that existed in their play area for just such a purpose. He liked when she sketched his portrait and thought that she must be doing more of the same in that locked room. "Why can't we watch?" he wanted to know, because he loved this magic trick of making figures rise from the page.
Nona Vinka thought the room was her mother's larder, that her father had locked it to keep his children out. "I'm so hungry," she told Jadranka in a plaintive voice when Jadranka emerged one night to find her great-aunt standing naked in the hallway. "Can't I have a piece of bread?"
Jadranka allowed herself to slip in and out of Vinka's world because she could not see the harm in it. Katarina, she had noticed, was more squeamish. "That was years ago, Mama," she would insist, only to have Vinka look at her as if she had just announced an invasion of talking locusts.
Jadranka did the same with Christopher, after all, alternately playing ogre, space alien, and princess. It was not such a stretch to play Vinka's mother, to smuggle her a crust of bread.
But tonight Nona Vinka was fully dressed and crocheting furiously. Christopher was fast asleep beneath the bed, just as Jadranka had suspected, and so she pulled him out and carried him to his own room. He protested for a moment but then dropped off again, his mouth half open. His bedroom resembled the clutter of a toy store, and she left him dreaming in the middle of stuffed bears and dolphins.
She had left the door to Nona Vinka's room ajar, and although she wanted nothing more than to go to her studio, she watched the flickering light from the television. No sound came from within, but she knew that she should at least close the door. That, otherwise, the old woman would sit there in rigid terror all night, believing the hallway filled with ghosts.
But this time when Jadranka stood in the doorway, Nona Vinka regarded her with a wan smile. "Hello, dear," she said. "I can't seem to find my cigarettes."
Excerpted from The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic. Copyright © 2013 Courtney Angela Brkic. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Courtney Angela Brkic seamlessly negotiates past and present, silence and secrets, to reveal one family's enduring love-as profound and as perilous as the sea surrounding their island home. With beautiful images and characters that are vividly real, The First Rule of Swimming is a delicately written work of art, about history and memories and the grief at their fading and loss. I loved this book! I could hardly put the book down. A must read for anyone who loves a good mystery. After starting with the first chapter I realized that it was something I was going to enjoy. The leisurely pacing let me get to know the characters, so when the action started I cared about how they would react. The settings were interesting, and I liked the way there were little mysteries dropped in along the way that all came together eventually. Several of the plot developments surprised me, which is always good. I found the conclusion pretty satisfying. This is the first book I've read by this author, but it won't be the last.
The First Rule of Swimming is the debut novel by author Courtney Angela Brkic. The title quote of the book comes from Luka, the patriarch of a Croatian family from the island of Rosmarina, "the first rule of swimming....is to stay afloat" is what he tells each successive generation as he teaches them to survive in the waters around the island. This is a very fitting metaphor for the book as a whole as Luka's family has been trying to do just that...stay afloat despite all of the turmoil and changes happening in Croatia and in their family. The book centers on Luka's two granddaughters. The oldest of the two, Magdalena, loves everything about Rosmarina and is content to live her life their in much the same way that her family has for generations. She is the old, traditional Croatia. Jadranka, on the other hand, is a free spirit who has never quite fit in on Rosmarina or the old ways. Through the interactions of the two sisters, both with each other, and with other members of their family, a picture of the family begins to emerge. It is through this picture that we learn about the choices each member has made, and just how much they have all done to survive. The story of Magdalena, Jadranka, and their family was an enjoyable read. Unfortunately, I thought the story was a bit uneven. The parts of the story that took place in Croatia, especially those that were set on the island of Rosmarina, were mesmerizing. This is where the author definitely warmed to her subject. Her descriptions of the island and it's inhabitants were very poetic and lyrical. The parts of the story that took place in the US, though also enjoyable, did not seem to me to be of the same caliber. Here the story was more in line with the average fare of many contemporary novels. In addition, although the ending fit the book well, there were no huge revelations or spectacular outcomes. The same can be said of the characters. By far the most interesting characters were those that lived in Croatia. By far Magdalena was the character that I was able to connect with the most. Luka was another one and I especially liked what the author did with his character later in the book. Here the descriptions of feelings and life were the most vivid and interesting. Of the US characters, Marin was my favorite as he seemed to get the most detail and therefore was the most interesting. I would have liked to see the author do a bit more with Jadranka and some of the other characters, though. All in all, I thought this was a good effort for a debut novel. It was an enjoyable read with interesting characters and a story that was at times mesmerizing, but on the whole interesting. I would definitely like to read more by this author, especially if she is writing about life in Croatia, or in Croatian settlements in the US. A job well done for a first book and I would give it 3.5 stars. Thanks to Little, Brown and Company and Netgalley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my review.
This book was a let down for me. I loved ths story line but in parts of the book it seemed hurried-like the author was rushing to meet a deadline and had to skip over some wonderful details that could of made this book awesome. And at times some of the events were a little unbelievable. I enjoyed the book but I wish I had borrowed it from our local library rather than pay for it.
THE FIRST RULE OF SWIMMING: stay afloat. Easier said than done when I hovered beneath the depths of prose, and searched for my bubbles on my way toward the surface, popping above the water and gasping for air. More often than not, I drowned, swallowing seawater, my lungs filling, my eyes popping out of my head, my clothes drenched, as I ended up entrenched with the sharks and a stingray. But I did see a blowfish explode, and I tried to blow my nose underwater—it didn’t work—and I coughed my way to the surface, barely making it to the top. What kept me treading water was the writing. But what smacked me over the head was elongated prose, a world filled with bastard characters, loose threads, and strangled sensations that had me traipsing through time. Needless to say, this book probably came at the wrong time, along with being more than a tad too ambitious in 337 pages. Instead, of punching through my psyche, it ripped me in about six different pieces, none of which seemed to lead the charge. How would you like to phrase the answer, Alex? Maybe we’ll call it a historical, psychological, literary, contemporary women, domestic thriller. And if you figure out what the frick that is, please let me know, because I honestly don’t have a clue. What might have been this book’s greatest sin of all, though, was once I finished it, I promptly forgot it. And not just a slight memory lapse either. By the time I reached the end, the whole damn book might have been nothing more than a figment of my imagination. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
A beautifully written story about tragedy and resilience. I was moved by how artfully the author captured the decline of the grandfather, and how he experienced events going on around him, along with all the other threads of the story. She also succeeds in capturing the setting as both a place of stunning scenery and of tragic history. I was captivated by the characters, especially Luka. Highly recommend.