Turning to face the sea, I shouted, ‘I will swim the Channel. I will not get out until I reach England.’
In return, the water threw salty spray in my face.
I squared my shoulders and stood up to it as though it were a schoolyard bully. ‘I need to do this. I need to prove to myself that I can. I need to show everyone at home that I am more than a wife and a mother. They need to see that…’
Martha is dead. Cancer. Her husband John has Alzheimer’s and when The Last Wave begins, we meet him confused, missing her, believing that she’s gone out to swim in the sea. Despite this, Martha is the character this tale of a family hinges on. Returned to life for the second chapter, she relates a story of herself as a ten-year-old girl out fishing with her father.
It was the first day I got wet.
I fell head first towards the water but it happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to think about taking a breath. I remembered hitting the water and thinking that it was strange that hurt so much, it felt as though I had hit something solid and hard. That moment changed the way I looked at the sea forever. Before it had been a vastness that had nothing to do with me, it was there and I knew it was cold and though I had been wading once or twice before, I had only felt the water move around me, and make way for me. But when I hit the water that day I understood that it was able to be more than one thing.
Martha’s accident is kept from her mother, as are the initial swimming lessons she has with her father’s friend, Jim. By the time her mother finds out and forbids her from continuing, Matha’s love of swimming in the sea has already taken hold.
The novel’s told from multiple perspectives, incorporating the views of Martha and Jim’s children, their daughter’s partner, their granddaughter and their next-door-neighbour. Each has a thread of their own – the daughter, Harriet, is gay, something her father is hugely uncomfortable with; the granddaughter, Myrtle, wants to follow in the waves of the grandmother she’s never met; the son, Ian, has moved to Australia, the furthest away he’s able to go, and the next-door-neighbour has a secret of his own. Best deftly weaves the character’s stories together. Not only does she move between their tales, she jumps along the chronology, leaving the reader to piece together the order of events. This is far less confusing than it sounds and makes for an engaging drama which maintains a narrative tension without obviously withholding information or making any dramatic twists.
While Best’s characters play out the type of scenarios you might expect from a fairly typical family coping with life’s challenges, they are underpinned by Martha’s extraordinary achievement: multiple swims across the English Channel. She’s a woman determined to defy the odds and convention. There’s a wonderful scene when John brings his manager home for dinner, hoping to land a promotion. Martha, sparked by a journalist’s comments that afternoon, has been swimming in the sea for the first time since their marriage. She arrives home, dripping wet, dinner uncooked.
He turned to look at Charlie through the glass doors. ‘There’s no way he’ll give me that promotion now. How can I control an entire department of men if I can’t even control my own wife?’
‘A wife isn’t for controlling,’ I said. ‘I have to do more than laundry. I want to do something bigger.’ I stepped forward, intending to change out of my dripping clothes, but he would not let me pass.
He looked furious – with me or himself I couldn’t tell.
‘I’m going to put some dry clothes on. Then I will come down and cook you and Charlie your dinner. And then, John, I’m going to swim the Channel.’
‘What is so bloody important about swimming the Channel?’ he shouted.
‘My life depends on it.’
I spoke to Gillian Best about Martha, swimming and telling stories.
Thanks to Freight Books for the review copy and to Gillian Best for the interview.