If you are a reader of either fiction or memoir or an author who struggles with the boundaries between the two, Renee Simpson’s fictional memoir, I Can’t Swim, is a read you shouldn’t miss. It combines the best of both genres. The voice of Rebee combines the innocence of childhood with the dry Queens humor, and her tales have the authenticity of memoir and the deeper character exploration and cohesion of fiction.
It is an intensely alive compelling read, largely due to Simpson’s gift for coloring pain with humor. Simpson has chosen to tell her story in a series of vignettes, rather than chronological sequence. We first meet the narrator’s mother, Victoria, as volatile woman perpetually thrown by her children’s pets, her impulsive, disastrous solutions, and the mysterious disappearance of said animals. We then move to the pair’s relationship to the Church, and little Rebee’s accounting of that relationship to the priest—a telling you won’t want to miss.
In the title tale, Renee, sharing the impulsive survival instinct of her mother, seeks to convince her wealthy day-camp compatriots that she is one of them. Her mother aids in the deception as it grows and grows, until Renee claims she can swim. Victoria’s reaction and solution, I’ll leave to the reader—suffice it to say it highlights the daughter growing in the image of the mother. There is much pain in these tails. In “Two Fathers” Renee deals with the mysteries and confusions of multiple fathers (hers and her younger sister’s) and the absence of her own. In yet another Victoria gathers with her siblings gather for Christmas at Rebee’s grandmother’s, where everyone exchanges bottles with the inevitable results. This is among the most painful and poignant of the stories, one where the author’s gift for carrying us through with humor shines bright. One of the most moving moments in the book is the child’s ability to draw peace from this stormy tale; the child’s love feels like the miracle of the day.
At times the tales become truly harrowing and our overall impression of a child clinging to the back of an out-of-control steed becomes stark. But Victoria is a fighter and a survivor, and we come to love her, and her love for Rebee, even as we move between laughter and horror at her cockeyed actions. Simpson brings her tale to a close with a vignette of herself as an adult, a story that merges both the determination to escape the chaos of her past and traces of her mother in herself. Overall, Simpson brings the gift of the fiction writer to her own story—a very successful blend in.
This is an author to follow.