The Swells by Will Aitken

This book is for anyone who has watched a movie and scoffed at something unbelievable, only to hear the main character say the same thing seconds later. This romp of a satire is one of the cleverest ways I’ve ever seen an author tell society it needs to shape up.

The story follows Briony, a travel journalist on a luxury cruise. She’s phoned by her boss only to be told the publication has taken a massive hit, and she’s taking a big pay cut but at least her travel expenses will still be taken care of. Briony immediately sinks into a depression and considers flinging herself off the end of the boat only to be saved by her infatuation with Teenah at the last second. She returns to her cabin and continues to play at being rich all the while relying on Teenah to drag her out of her despondent moods.

“Aitken shocks and soothes you on nearly every page, detailing out how we fail others as a society and profit off those failings into entering privileged life.”

An earthquake during a portside visit to a silk weaving factory results in hundreds of worker deaths. Briony’s friend is taken during an invasion of pirates. A chance encounter with Mrs. Moore, who is encouraging the sunless, overworked and ill-treated workers below to mutiny all take their part in shaking Briony from where she originally saw herself. My favourite part is when her butler Luis is loading Briony up with all the possible seasickness remedies he can think of, including opium-poppy pods, lets her have a nap in her room and then slaps her awake only to stick a bright yellow rain slicker on her and shove her outside for a walk during a typhoon.

Sometime later the sea rolls and bumps, rocks and shakes her -- slaps her hard. Slaps her? 
“Luis, what the fuck are you doing?” She can see he wants to get in one last clout.

Follow along as Briony tirelessly corrects the words and phrases everyone else uses in a pedantic, determined manner that can only belong to someone who regularly has to edit their own words. Add in some entertaining escapades, a few choice hurried sexual encounters and a lot of excrement and you have a satire guaranteed to drag you through how the privileged treat others and why we let it happen.

Aitken shocks and soothes you on nearly every page, detailing out how we fail others as a society and profit off those failings into entering privileged life. The characters are caricatures of the people we see regularly; the older rich, the frantic communications person, the suspiciously religious actor, and the hapless “innocent” who has to choose whose side to take.

I can appreciate the points Aitken was attempting to make throughout this story, however – and I can’t believe I’m going to write this – there’s too much going on. We’re flung from one place to another, one event to another and we rarely have time to breathe in between.

Come for the efficient tearing down of cruise life and what sustains it, stay for the banter between Luis and Briony.

WILL AITKEN has written three previous novels — RealiaA Visit Home, and Terre Haute — and the non-fiction books Death in Venice: A Queer Film Classic and Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo van Hove, and the Art of Resistance, which was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. He lives in Montreal.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ House of Anansi Press (Jan. 4 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1487009690
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1487009694

Stephanie Sirois (they/them) is a writer, artist and journalist on unceded Wolastoqiyik territory. They spend their time reading, writing, making art and exhorting their family into playing board games with them.