Faye Guenther’s first collection of short fiction, Swimmers in Winter*, is described as a “trifecta of diptychs.” Any of the six pieces can stand well on their own, or can work in their pairs to flesh out the characters, the timeframe, and the realities of life for queer women in their communities. Offering an exploration of desire that spans the past, present, and future, the collection’s structure and organization is as interesting to contemplate as the stories themselves.
Although this sort of stylistic constraint can run the risk of interrupting the flow of a collection, the stories in Swimmers in Winter fit together like a body. The disparate limbs are carefully stitched into one form through Guenther’s poetic, lyrical prose. There is a rhythm and purposefulness to each sentence, and every piece drips with a sense of fidelity and feeling. The reader is drawn in for just the right amount of time, and given just enough insight into every scene, character, and moment before those final lines emerge and we are ushered onto the next story.
Multifaceted women are the focus of the collection. There are assertive women who reckon with the options available to them in a moment designed to restrict their freedoms. There are loyal women who crave stability and a place to call home in the face of economic insecurity and danger. There are warrior women who have been damaged by forces beyond their control, yet who still fight to find connections and safety. As I moved through the collection, these characters felt like women that I know or women that I want to know. They are familiar, beautiful, and full of life, and their idiosyncrasies and flaws are very carefully rendered.
Certainly, struggle is a central theme throughout the collection. In the title story, potential lovers run from the police, and the narrator contemplates the city and its systems as it teems with commotion. In another piece, an elderly woman looks back on her life to ruminate on the instability of memory and time. She wonders how things could have been different, while also recognizing that her experiences have allowed her to know herself completely. Thinking back on her first lover, she wonders: “If not for Florence, how would I have known myself? . . . A lover teaches you to understand the limits of yourself, and how to lose them.”
Importantly, where there is pain, there is also growth. Possibility remains even in the ruins of a failed relationship, or an unrequited love, or a wasteland in the wake of a flood. In moments of loss the stories ask deep and crucial questions about identity and belonging, wondering how we come to understand ourselves, to know others, and to fight to make a place for ourselves in the world.
In a piece late in the collection, the narrator muses, “Words are just sounds and the feeling of something.” In tight but vivid prose, Faye Guenther has created a masterful symphony of sensation and meaning. It seems too easy to simply say that I loved this collection, but I did. Swimmers in Winter is a wonderful debut and offers a hauntingly beautiful meditation on uncertainty, pain, love, sexuality, and selfhood.
*Note: This title will be released on August 24, 2020.
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