Book review: Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim

On the day Alexandra Heminsley and her husband returned from their honeymoon, they got into the sea near their Brighton home. 

Book review: Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim

Alexandra Heminsley

Hutchinson, €18.20

As they splashed around, a huge wave swept her husband’s wedding ring off his finger. A week later, during a thunderstorm, their flat was flooded.

For Heminsley, these events were a declaration of war.

“It was the sea versus me,” she writes near the opening of Leap In, “and I would throw everything at this fight”.

Despite only ever swimming a few lengths of a pool, Heminsley resolves to conquer the water by becoming an accomplished sea swimmer.

Leap In perceptively chronicles Heminsley’s struggles to learn how to swim and her experience of a series of increasingly arduous swim events, culminating in an attempted five-kilometre swim between the Greek islands of Kefalonia and Ithaca.

That Ithaca was the home of Odysseus is significant: Heminsley, a journalist and author, is embarking on an epic personal quest that tosses her against her physical and psychological limits.

But this isn’t entirely unfamiliar territory for Heminsley: the author’s bestselling Run Like a Girl (2013) explored her transformation from exercise-refusenik to five-time marathon runner.

If, as an adult, you’ve tried to learn (or re-learn) to swim, the author’s frustrations with leaky goggles and breathing while in the water will make for painfully recognisable reading.

But for Heminsley, swimming is a metaphor for a much larger ambition.

“I wanted to dive into water as I wanted to dive into life: filled with joy, curiosity, and the knowledge that though there might be dangers, they aren’t daunting enough to make it not worth doing.”

In a piercing parallel narrative, the author intertwines her attempts to get pregnant using IVF with the account of her aquatic battles.

If IVF is “brutal and disorientating”, it is completed overshadowed when Heminsley becomes pregnant but then miscarries.

It represents a pivotal moment in the book.

Swimming (like running) dramatically altered Heminsley’s relationship with her body.

But by miscarrying, she feels her “body had been rejected, and in turn I rejected my body”.

Ironically, as she slowly returns to swimming, the sea that began as her avowed enemy now offers a soothing balm.

The ferocious determination of Heminsley’s swimming is matched by the descriptive verve of her writing.

Unsettled during her first open water swim, Heminsley’s focus on the shoreline dizzily zooms in and out at alarming speed “as if Hitchcock himself were directing my anxieties for maximum effect”.

In the sea around Ithaca, the water’s surface was pristine and innocent but “like a sly pupil passing notes under a school desk… beneath it was moving, churning, agitating”.

Yet Leap In seems like an uneasy hybrid. The first part concerns Heminsley’s story while the second consists of a swimming handbook, providing a history of swimming, tips on gear, and answers to typical beginner questions.

I didn’t feel that Heminsley hit the right note here: I would have preferred to read more of her personal record rather than the ragbag guide to swimming presented in the book’s second part.

But then this memoir-cum-primer format was a vital element in the appeal of Run Like a Girl, and this book is likely to both find a wide audience and encourage aspiring swimmers into the water.

Honest, reflective, and compassionate, Leap In ultimately charts Heminsley’s burgeoning resilience as she uncovers the strength in calmness, the courage to change her plans, and the necessity of taking risks.

“You can never be sure of anything,” Heminsley writes.

“Yet, as with swimming, you keep going, you keep breathing, and then, when you reach an edge, you have lived more fully than before.”

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