To celebrate the publication day for Swimmers in Winter, editor Bryan Ibeas reflects back on the characters and circumstances that make Faye Guenther’s book so compelling.
It’s been a few months and an eternity since I last worked with Faye on Swimmers in Winter, so looking back at the book is proving to be an interesting exercise. Fittingly, the act of looking back is a recurring theme in Swimmers in Winter, and listing off the top of my head the myriad ways in which Faye employs recollection in her storytelling—both actively and passively, to describe and to determine, to reinforce and to subvert—conveniently provides me with a framework for talking about the book itself.
I tell people all the time that the stories in Swimmers in Winter are indistinguishable from the characters that inhabit them. Even the term ‘inhabit’ feels misleading – the characters don’t so much live in their stories, as they are the stories. When I look back on each story, my initial thoughts aren’t of this line or that scene; rather, what emerges first, unsummoned, are my personal feelings towards the main characters, as visceral as if I knew them in real life.
I think about Claudia and Eva, how familiar I am with their relationship dynamic despite how utterly foreign their circumstances are to me, and how any advice I could offer them is couched in a cold hard YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE. I wish I could help them, but I don’t know how to.
I think about Jackie, whose personal narrative is beset by a love as powerful as it is blind, and I want to say to her: PLEASE REALIZE YOU DESERVE BETTER. PLEASE UNDERSTAND, WHAT YOU HAVE NOW IS BETTER.
I think about Florence, who lives life fully and unceasingly in the present not just because her art requires it but because her survival demands it—and I look back on my own life and wonder how often I burned my candle from both ends and called that passion.
I think about Magda, who has the luxury of a long full life to look back on, and I admire her acceptance of it all. I hope one day I too can take the regrets in stride, take the losses with gratitude, take the joys for what they are and not what I wanted them to be.
I think about Carmen, and how her memories have—like an autoimmune disorder—become a weapon turned on herself. How her past interacts with her present not as a tint or a filter, but as an intruder who strikes for any reason, and sometimes for no reason at all. Carmen’s story helped me better understand that trauma is never just a moment that exists behind you – it’s also an agent that actively stands in front of you.
I think about the narrator of the final story “Floodlands”, also named Carmen, who salvages joy from the relics of a way of life that has long since ceased to be. I think often about her, and about this story, as I struggle with our new normal. As terrified as I am of what confronts us now, and what may await us later, and I see “Floodlands” as a helpful reminder that no matter how much external circumstances might change, the drives and the needs that make us human will, for ill and for good, remain the same.
Actually, that last idea applies to Swimmers in Winter as a whole. The need for meaningful connection, the balancing act between past and present, the hopes for a better future—these are common to all of Faye’s characters. Not to define them, but to inform them. As I’ve stated before, the characters of Swimmers in Winter are the whole of their stories, not just an element of them. To read their stories is to know the characters, perhaps not fully—but who truly knows another person in full?
And that’s the gift Faye Guenther gives us with Swimmers in Winter: she gives us people who exist beyond the words on the page, who will live on in your mind long after you’ve put the book back on the shelf.
Bryan Ibeas is an editor for Invisible Publishing.