Book Review #41: Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5⭐️
Title: Swimming in the Dark: A Novel
Author: Tomasz Jedrowski
Published: 2020 (William Morrow, HarperCollins, New York)
Pages: 191 (Hardcover)
Genres: Fiction, Historical, LGBT, Queer, Contemporary, Romance
CW: Sex, Political Unrest, Violence, Discrimination, Drug Use
Link Here

My borrowed copy of Swimming in the Dark against a bath wall

Hello everyone! I’m back this week to talk about this emotionally gripping and heartbreaking novel, Swimming in the Dark by Polish author Tomasz Jedrowski. This is the first book I have read by Jedrowski. I can’t remember where I stumbled across this one, but it was a while ago and I saw many positive reviews. When this read became available at my local library, I wanted to give it a shot. But I have to admit when this book was described as “Call Me By Your Name set in Communist Poland”, it definitely piqued my interest.

And yet, it occurs to me now that we can never run with our lies indefinitely. Sooner or later we are forced to confront their darkness. We can choose then when, not the if. And the longer we wait, the more painful and uncertain it will be” – Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark

Swimming in the Dark is like a long love letter and recounting narrative directed towards the main character’s love interest, Janusz. Literally, the narration is directed to a second person from beginning to end. Our narrator, Ludwik Glowacki, is a young man living in Communist Poland in the early 1980s, and is about to become a true adult in the world finding his place in his country when he meets his first great love, another young man named Janusz. They begin a torrid affair during the summer they first meet at an agriculture camp. They bond over James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, a book not accepted in Poland. The book affects them for different reasons, and how they see their gay identities, especially Ludwik’s. Both men struggle with the social and political pressures their country throws at them, and both deal with the pressures of having the hide who they are. Ludwik and Janusz eventually fall on different very different paths in their society as they get acquainted into their own identities as they go out into the world and grow apart. Ludwik quickly realizes life isn’t as simple as it was that summer they met in the countryside, and questions whether he wants to remain in the country that restricted his freedoms to choose. Swimming in the Dark is a story of love, history, loss and growing into one’s identity. This book, overall, is incredibly speculative and powerful.

This wasn’t distraction or entertainment: here was a book that seemed to have been written for me, which lifted me up into its realm and united me with something that seemed to have been there all along and that I seemed to be a part of. It felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narrator – despite their agony, despite their pain – healed some of my agony and my pain, simply by existing” – Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark

This book was like a collection of poetry at times. I was not sure about the narration style at first, but I grew to love it. Jedrowski does a wonderful job of diving into the inner feelings and desires of the main character. I could not identify with any of the characters, especially Ludwik, but I was still feeling for him by the end of the novel. The writing was intense and contained a tender message about a cold time in Poland’s history. Jedrowski is very descriptive when it comes to his writing, and to put it frankly, uses a lot of words to describe certain ideas and emotions. It only makes the narrative seem more like poetry, and at times I questioned how necessary it was. I’m not the author though. Also, the history in the book itself was super fascinating. I did not know a lot about Communist Poland post-WWII, and also when Poland fell under martial law and the decline of communism occurred in the 1980s. Jedrowski describes the history, and the feelings of the people around the events so vividly and I feel like I learned a lot in the process.

Because you were right when you said that people can’t always give us what we want from them; that you can’t ask them to love you the way you want. No one can be blamed for that” – Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark

Why should you read this book? If you enjoy historical fiction about LGBT narratives and young-adult characters centering around Communist Poland, this is the book for you. This book is definitely rewarding in itself, and if you’re looking to expand your queer and LGBT reading, this is a good place to continue. The story also summarizes the experience of growing up not fitting into your environment, and remaining on the outside because of your identity very well. I only became emotional at some points reading this book, but not as much as I’ve heard others have. The story and difficult situations can be a lot to take in at times so be prepared.

I give this one a 4 out of 5! There were not that many negatives, and the story was complete in itself and communicated very well.


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