Swimming with Seals by Victoria Whitworth (Head of Zeus, £7.99)

Shortlisted for this year’s PEN Ackerley Prize for literary autobiography, Victoria Whitworth’s Swimming with Seals is an elegantly written, carefully structured memoir which replicates the raw, messy nature of memory. Whitworth dovetails the story of ‘a single swim, which took place at dawn in late January 2016’ off the Sands of Evie on Orkney with her meditations on the gradual breakdown of marriage, her mother’s death and motherhood.

Whitworth first began swimming (without a wetsuit) in the bracing water off the island with the Orkney Polar Bear Club. Whitworth’s obsessive daily swimming continued through the harsh Orcadian winters – even when the island’s lochs ‘had frozen hard, and the hills of Hoy and Rousay and the West Mainland were white’. Whitworth’s memoir contains numerous compelling descriptions of the island’s wildlife. She continues with her swimming ritual even as an orca pod is sighted close to the sands, and seals are – naturally – a constant presence in her daily practice, peering at her through the waves.

Swimming with Seals carefully uncovers the layered past of the island, as well as her own psychological transformation, encouraged by her ritualistic daily swims and ‘the healing therapy of the water’. Whitworth is a writer, archaeologist and art historian, specialising in medieval languages, having undertaken her doctoral research on early medieval death and burial practices at the University of York. Swimming with Seals is informed by Whitworth’s knowledge of the ways in which the landscape of Orkney has, as she puts it, ‘been written and overwritten many times across thousands of years, scraped back by forces of geology and weather as well as human activity’. The memoir opens, for instance, with a description of a curlew’s flight in ‘great loops’ above the sands where Whitworth takes her daily swim, prompting her to think ‘of the souls of the dead’ in the Old English poem The Wanderer.

Swimming with Seals is a trove of history, local myths and folklore hinted at through the archaeological clues betrayed by the land that Whitworth is able to decipher and delicately weave into her prose. Fans will find much to enjoy in this compelling memoir.

Review by Francesca Bratton, Little Apple bookshop