The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle, by Sophie Green, is the book I would usually say you should take with you on your beach holiday. At least I would, if this had been a regular year. Given that we find ourselves in this pandemic, and the likelihood of beach holidays is at best unknown, instead I’ll just advise reading it for pure escapism.
The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle is set in a suburb of Sydney, between the spring of 1982 and the summer of 1984. It follows four different women, as they navigate changes in their lives. There is Theresa, trying to juggle raising her children, volunteering, and an evolving marriage. Marie, still in mourning for her late husband and isolated from her best friend. Elaine, recently moved to Australia from England, leaving her grown-up children and elderly parents behind. And then there is Leanne, the youngest of the group, whose silence hides a world of hurt and pain.
The women meet by chance on the beach, each deciding to swim every day for different reasons, and slowly embark upon a friendship based around swimming, and gradually, support. As Theresa narrates early on in the book:
She walks slowly so that Elaine can accompany Marie into the surf, her earlier disappointment put aside. It’s been lovely – a privilege – having Marie to herself but she’s really too special to hoard. Besides, Theresa likes Elaine already, in the way that you just know you like some people even if you can’t say exactly why. Kismet, you might call it.
Shelly Bay is not just about the glories of swimming and female friendship. There is heartbreak, alcoholism, sexism, adultery, cancer, sexual assault. These women battle the changes and traumas in their lives, continuing to swim together and support each other whenever they can, which makes the book both uplifting and real. Challenges of life are not glossed over but woven into the narrative. Green does not shy away from the difficult, or the traumatic in telling a story about friendship.
Challenges of life are not glossed over but woven into the narrative. Green does not shy away from the difficult, or the traumatic in telling a story about friendship.
As Elaine remembers at one point:
In the midst of a rough surf, there was Marie pulling a jellyfish out of her swimming costume and brandishing it before flinging it back into the ocean, and Theresa fishing seaweed out from the back of her costume and asking if she should use it to make a bikini, while Leanne hid her smile by putting her mouth underwater. If Elaine existed just in those moments – if all of them did – life would be easy.
But we don’t only exist in the water, or in the sunlit happy spaces, and life is hard, even more so now. The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle is a wonderful reminder of how we are never truly going through life alone, that support is always there, we just have to find it, or ask for it, and open ourselves up to being supported.