Grief is a powerful emotion. It demands and deserves respect. We may fight it, repress it, or swim against it, but in the end, denying grief only prolongs the pain that must eventually come.
For the poet and novelist Brendan Shay Basham, that reckoning transpires in the body. While the mind may try to forget scars and traumas, the body never does. Grief lives inside all Basham’s characters in Swim Home to the Vanished. From the first page of his lyrical and visceral debut novel, Basham goes to great lengths to illustrate grief’s power over his protagonist, Damien, a chef whose brother, Kai, recently disappeared and is presumed dead. At first, we learn only that Kai died in a body of water—possibly in a river before being swept out to sea. “Those first days Kai went missing,” Basham writes, “Damien figured he’d finally run away. How could anyone know that he might harm himself?” Kai’s death is presented as a mystery, and I read on under this assumption, but Basham never fully resolves the question of his brother’s possible suicide. For now, we can only make note of it as Damien shutters his restaurant and departs on a mournful journey into the unknown. “When you lose someone close,” Basham writes, “you travel to a place of the dead. You enter the river, you swim in it, it takes you out to sea. The fish seem to know.”
What begins as a funeral march for his brother turns into an odyssey-in-reverse. Whereas Odysseus sought to return home after the Trojan War, Damien drifts farther and farther away from home on a current of grief. He wanders south, trusting his feet to guide him, like a mystic, a pilgrim, or a creature with an innate sense of direction, “drawn by the scent of salt.” Grief makes him sluggish and easily confused. And most troublingly, he is growing gills behind his ears. Damien is slowly turning into a fish.
I took this as an homage to “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka’s famous story about a man who wakes up as an insect or some kind of vermin, depending on the translation. But Swim Home to the Vanished is not so easily categorized. Basham doesn’t want Damien’s gills to distract us, and in this way he diverges from Kafka’s absurd realism and veers closer to magical realists like Gabriel García Márquez. Indeed, Damien treats his gills as a nuisance. Rather than suffocating him, they mark him as a fish out of water, a traveler who is yet to reach his final destination.
Damien’s world is as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting. He encounters an old goatherd with a wagon filled with talismans, jars of “leaves, grains, spices, spiders,” and bees, of all things. The goatherd trains Damien on a new destination, “a land for the grieving.” Like an oracle or shaman, the goatherd is not to be questioned. Damien boards a ramshackle bus that drops him in a fishing village perched on the edge of the sea, and this village occupies center stage for the rest of the novel.
He arrives at a crucial time for the village. Its waters are overfished, and the townspeople are wholly reliant for their survival on a local restaurant owner and powerful matriarch named Ana María. She takes pity on the itinerant stranger—Damien is destitute, hungry, filthy, his gills parched—and gives him a job at her restaurant. We learn that one of Ana María’s three daughters, Carla, was recently murdered, and the other two, Marta and Paola, are steering clear of their mother for their own complicated reasons. Damien is quickly embroiled in the simmering feud between Ana María and Marta, who resents her mother’s power over the town. At this point, I kept expecting Damien to shake himself off and continue on his voyage. But he decides to stay, partially out of obligation to Ana María, who saved his life, and partially out of fascination with her daughters, who know more about their sister’s murder than they let on.
When a hurricane strikes the village in the climactic chapters, we learn that a witch —“la bruja”—has taken on the form of the storm itself. After Carla’s widower, Tito, turns his fishing boat around in the midst of the storm and plows directly into a huge, red wave (“it was a deep red streaked with foam and bubble”), Tito tells Damien that “’‘we hurt her. We felt it when we hit.’” Soon after, Damien confronts the witch in the town’s abandoned church and discovers that she has suffered a grisly, mortal wound to the stomach. If water represents the grief that mourners swim in, then the witch weaponizes her grief by becoming the wave even as her human form suffers from suppressing it.
The villagers speak Spanish and allude subtly to dispossession, violence, and the environmental degradation associated with settler colonialism. Basham studied under the award-winning Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Orange surely inspired and encouraged Basham to write his debut novel, which can be read as an elegy for past generations of Native peoples. But stylistically, Basham owes more to the prolific Spokane author Sherman Alexie, whose comic sensibility and interest in Native mythology abound on every page of Swim Home (Alexie resigned as an independent contractor with the Institute of American Indian Arts in the wake of sexual harassment allegations in 2018). Basham’s novel reminded me of Alexie’s story, “The Toughest Indian in the World,” which uses salmon motifs to convey reverence and nostalgia for cultural myths, echoing Damien’s transformation into a fish and Basham’s interest in cultural evolution. Basham identifies as Diné, or Navajo, and grew up on or near the Navajo Nation in Arizona. In a recent interview for the Navajo Times, he spells out one of his goals as a writer: “I’m trying to remind Americans [that Native people are] still here. We’re present-tense Indians. I’m battling mythologies while creating new ones.”
Imagistic, alliterative sentences remind us that Basham first published as a poet, and Swim Home serves as a natural extension of his poetic bent. This is a book of prose poetry, concerned less with plot and novelistic conventions than with emotional resonance. When we consider Swim Home in this context, some of the more baffling moments take on greater meaning—they function less at face value and more as thematic statements. Sister Marta displays “segmented legs” and “furry” hands but behaves like a person. She is both human and insect at once, a shapeshifter like her mother Ana María, who Basham first describes as a “woman with overbaked skin, fat but spritely,” and later as having a third eyelid, like a caiman lizard. We are left to wonder if their creaturely characteristics are visible to all the villagers or to Damien alone.
Basham’s playfulness shines through in his experimentation with perspective. He switches from one character’s point of view to another, often multiple times on a single page. This roving point of view becomes a double-edged sword. It provides insights into various characters’ thoughts and motivations in real time. However, the sudden shifts are disorienting, and they distance us from Damien. Basham seems to blink and shrink away from Damien’s point of view at times when a closer look at his state of mind would serve the story better.
Ultimately, adventuresome readers and poetry fans will enjoy this author’s imaginative take on competing, modern mythologies about communal identity. Society has yet to come to terms with its violent past, and Basham is right to call for a collective grieving process that acknowledges and begins to heal from this painful legacy. Basham is a promising new literary voice who is just getting started.
Swim Home to the Vanished
Brendan Shay Basham
Published August 22, 2023
Max Gray's essays and criticism have appeared in the Chicago Review of Books and The Rumpus. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Cutbank, Mount Hope, and Jelly Bucket. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA program.