Angels can’t swim – Alexandra McCann

I was sent a free copy of this novella by the author in response for an unbiased review

Jenna kicks hard, feels her muscles burning as she flips and pushes off the wall for the last fifty meters of the set. She is one of the fastest swimmers on the teams and she needs to carry her teammates by swimming faster than her pace this morning.’ 

Angels Can't Swim for coverJenna, Maggie, and Eden are each incredibly different in their personalities and struggles, yet under pressure they must come together in this compelling story of friendship and what it means to be a good teammate. While balancing the pressures of swimming at a high level and also dealing with the realities of college life, the three young women grow immensely as individual people and in their bonds with each other.

 

What I thought

On the whole I really enjoyed this book. It didn’t shy away from dealing with difficult topics, which is really important. Plus the three girls are all distinct characters and it it’s easy to tell who is talking when the POV changes. There’s no denying that there are issues with it which I will get into. But although I noticed them while reading it, it didn’t pull me away from the book and I enjoyed the time I spent reading it.

The friendship between the three of them was a really interesting one because although they are all friends they are friends in pairs and not as a group. This is something that’s definitely odd but it’s also something that happens when two of the three are closer than the other one is. It doesn’t mean that the other one isn’t friendly with either of them but that it can get awkward when they are all together, mostly because they use the pairing off to talk about different things. And because they think it’ll be awkward they don’t become a ‘threesome’.
What’s weird about this is at first glance it might come across as weird and potentially a flaw with this book it is. It isn’t because this is a thing that happens. If you talk about certain things with different people then bringing those people together (even when they are friends) bring a certain amount of tension. Person A might talk to B about sexuality and to C about mental health. If it becomes ABC and not AB, AC, BC then it becomes difficult to know or second guess what the other person knows and so you don’t really talk about anything important.
Which is what happens here; Eden talks to Maggie and how she’s gay and fancies Jenna whilst Jenna has been asked by their coach to find out what’s going on with Eden. This causes a really interesting mood and tension between the group as they all try and work out what’s going on with the other person to the point of ignoring what’s going on with themselves.

This relationship between them and how the power continued to subtly change was by far one of the best bits of the book. All of them needed support from the others at different times but of differing amount and differing levels of acceptance.

My main issue is that it’s written in third person present tense. Which is something I don’t get along with at the best of times. It becomes ‘x sits on the sofa. She ignores her homework to watch TV’. I think the reason I struggle with it is because it feels like stage directions and not prose. And stage directions are always slightly awkward to read because they are supposed to be invisible. They aren’t something the general public are supposed to see, they are supposed to amplify different moments but the power comes from the words that are being said and not the actions themselves. When the whole book becomes stage directions it can be difficult to understand what’s going on as everything and nothing is being amplified. It doesn’t allow for an understanding of what is going on in a person’s brain or let’s you know what they are feeling without explicitly saying it. And again if the script says ‘x shouts: I’m here’ it means a different thing to ‘x shouts angrily: I’m here’. The words themselves aren’t different but the intonation is.
The upshot of it being written like this meant it felt like I was reading the final notes of a draft, in the sense of ‘this is going to happen, and then this, and then that’. It felt like it still had to be converted into prose and still needed padding out.  Telling me what is happening is fine every now and then but it’s more important to show it (again the difference between reading a script and seeing the play).  I think the reason this annoyed me was because it while it was a fairly good novella I feel like this good have been a really good full length novel had that padding out happened. It touched on difficult topics and could have done with the extra time and depth from exploring them properly.

And that’s my second, and only other issue. It didn’t shy away from things happening but it felt like each topic was big enough that it should have had more time devoted to it. Food issues, sexuality, relationships, and mental health are all really big issues and although they are definitely touched on and looked at I would have liked them to be looked at in a bit more depth. We didn’t really get a proper look at how the girls felt. We were told it, but that’s not the same thing.

Of the three characters I preferred Eden, I felt her situation was the one that was the most explored and she had the most growth as a character. I think I also related to her falling out of love with something and not fully knowing or understanding why. As well as with the way she was able to academically know something (especially about herself) but still couldn’t fully accept it or struggled wit hit. It can be so easy to just put on a face and try to trick yourself into thinking or feeling something. And sometimes the best way to do that is to talk to people about it. If you can talk and joke about it, it clearly isn’t a big deal. Right? It’s definitely a defence strategy I’ve used in the past and when she was trying to question herself as to why she wasn’t enjoying swimming any more I really felt for her.  I’ve fallen out of love with reading before and have still kept reading. Each time I tell myself that the next book will be different, or that I did enjoy it even if it felt blunted or duller than normal.
That’s not to say the other two girls aren’t great, Jenna’s storyline is a really important one and it shows how things can grow into something much more than we could ever expect. But it also shows how society trains us to think about things (I’m being deliberately vague here because I don’t want to spoil something, especially because it’s a novella.)
I also really felt for Maggie when she tried so hard to do the right thing all the time. Spending your whole life trying to live up to someone else’s perfect morals is difficult. (side note: I love that Maggie says she’d never met anybody who was gay before college. It just shows how sheltered people can be in small towns but also how scary it can be to ‘come out’ in such a small place where everyone knows everyone.)

 

Why I read it:

I was sent a free copy of this novella by the author in response for an unbiased review. However even if I hadn’t been I feel like this would have ended up on my TBR at some point. College YA dealing with sexuality, mental health, food issues, and general college/uni life? Yup, definitely something right up my street.

 

Final Thought:

On the whole this is a good book, I think it’s just a pity that it was in present tense and needed a bit more exploration. I do wish there were a few changes to it and feel it needed to do a bit more than just acknowledge each issue, some of them were dealt with a bit too quickly.  But I’m really glad I was sent a copy and I enjoyed the time I spent lying in the garden reading it. It’s not a long read but sometimes on a hot summer’s day that’s exactly what you want.

 

Would I recommend? Yes. There might be things I would change but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a good book.

 

Challenge

Popsugar: LGBTQ+ protag, about mental health, borrowed/given as a gift, published in 2018, problem facing society today.

Read Harder: One-sitting

 

As always please let me know if you’ve read this novella or if my review has made you interested.
Also I’d love to hear if you have the same issues with present tense as I do, or if you like it. I’d love to know if I’m the only one or if other people find it slightly off putting. Of course if you like it then please explain why I’m wrong.

See you next time

Rea
P.S my next review is ‘Hope’ by Rhian Ivory

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