Tomasz Jędrowski’s Swimming in the Dark has the critics swooning and it’s easy to see why. It’s a beautiful, lyrical romance set in 1980s Poland that blends history with the tale of sexual discovery.
Ludwik Głowacki is young and idealistic, living under a repressive system and dreaming of escaping to the West. At a summer agricultural camp he meets the older, handsome Janusz and they start to bond over an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The two spend an idyllic few weeks camping by a lake, swimming and living free away from society. But when they return to town, the two men must make their way in a homophobic world filled with oppression and hypocrisy.
Reflecting on his own life after escaping Poland, Ludwik’s story is mired in conflict and sadness. His chance of love with Janusz is tainted by the realisation they have very different political views. Janusz would rather work the corrupt system than escape it. He manages to charm his way into society, flirting with the rich and influential girl Hania, while Ludwik’s earnest, moral stance fills him with bitterness.
Telling the story in the past tense gives the reader a sense of comfort, we know Ludwik will survive even if we don’t know if his current state is really any better than his past. Jedrowski’s writing has the melancholic air of Alan Hollinghurst and with the energy of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels. It’s a blend that is at once familiar but laced with sufficient novelty to feel fresh.
But the biggest, clearest inspiration is Baldwin. The constant evocation of Giovannni’s Room starts to work against the novel as you constantly refer it to this towering masterpiece of queer literature. From the depictions of poverty to Ludwik’s emotional turmoil and the suspicious locals around them, Baldwin’s ghost lingers over the text.
Tomasz Jędrowski has written a brilliant debut novel that marks the arrival of another fine queer voice. Heartbreaking, rewarding and immersive, Swimming in the Dark will hold its place alongside the other bastions of tasteful queer lit on bookshelves for years to come.
By Chad Armstrong
Order Tomasz Jędrowski’s Swimming in the Dark from your local bookstore.
Swimming in the Dark also comes highly recommended by Lord Michael Cashman, read what he has to say about the book in our exclusive interview with him.