The Swimmer, By Roma Tearne

Roma Tearne is one of those writers who manage to interweave the political and personal to tremendous effect. She is also an accomplished painter. Tearne was just 10 when her family fled Sri Lanka, and it is clear from her works –both artistic and literary – that this experience and love for the country she lost continue to touch her deeply. Her fourth novel is set in Orford, a small Suffolk backwater popular with tourists. The open skies, windswept coast and surrounding marshlands create a stark, beautiful landscape that becomes a brooding presence in the book.

The 43-year-old Ria lives alone in the cottage she loved as a child. One moonlit night she discovers a young man swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden. Ben is a Sri Lankan doctor seeking asylum in Britain. While he awaits news from the Home Office, he works illegally on a local farm in return for food and lodging. Despite an 18-year age gap and their cultural differences, the friendship swiftly blossoms into a passionate affair. When tragedy strikes, the repercussions are felt far beyond this small corner of East Anglia.

Love and loss are explored through the voices of three very different women – a lover, a mother and a daughter. Tearne captures a shifting social and political landscape and questions notions of home and homeland. She eloquently persuades her readers to side with the disenfranchised, and to understand the predicament of refugees.

Tearne draws her characters with an artist's precision. One of the many pleasures of The Swimmer is the myriad ways in which their hopes, anxieties and thwarted desires are revealed to us. Tearne builds delicate tensions between all her characters. The emotional baggage of Ria and her brother, Jack, is in sharp contrast to the fortitude of Ben and his mother Anula.

The Swimmer is also a powerful meditation on the different ways we grieve: the incomprehension and unresolved rage of Anula carries particular resonance. But despite the overwhelming sense of desolation that confronts the three women, there is such political passion at the heart of her writing that Tearne ensures her elegiac tone is never maudlin. Her extraordinary book offers a rare insight into the subtle and dramatic ways we are shaped by conflict, and how our personal lives can be overtaken by political forces.

Published in the Independent, Tuesday, 8 June 2010