Emily Dickinson famously pronounced that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” providing the enduring metaphor of a spritely little bird that dwells within each of our souls. With Swim Home to the Vanished, poet and first-time novelist Brendan Shay Basham suggests that, in contrast, grief is a thing that may be best embodied by fins and gills.
Basham’s peripatetic novel recounts the extraordinary odyssey of a Diné man named Damien after his younger brother drowns in the Pacific Northwest. Still reeling six months after Kai’s body washes ashore, Damien finds himself irresistibly called to the water, the source of his loss but also the source of all life. When gills begin to sprout behind his ears, he quits his job as a chef and makes his way south—first by truck, then by foot—to a small seaside fishing village. There he encounters village matriarch Ana Maria and her two daughters, Marta and Paola, with whom he shares a certain kinship, as they too have recently lost a family member. However, the early hospitality offered by these women may not be as it seems. Rumors of their supernatural origins swirl, and Damien soon finds himself caught up in poisonous family dynamics and power struggles that threaten to consume not only him but also the entire village.
Basham binds together myth and history in Swim Home to the Vanished, drawing inspiration from the Diné creation tale as well as what is known as the Long Walk—the U.S. government’s forced removal of the Navajo people from their ancestral lands. Basham’s own brother died in 2006, and while Damien’s grief causes him to lose the ability to speak, Basham’s words course across the page, sucking readers in with their vivid imagery and raw emotions.
Basham has a particular gift for transmuting inner intangible turmoils into corporeal form; the various characters’ physical transformations from human to creature are a creative epigenetic exploration of the ways in which trauma and grief shape who we are. For readers desiring straightforward writing and an unambiguous narrative, Swim Home to the Vanished may frustrate with its dreamlike nature, but for fans of poetic storytelling, Basham’s narrative will prove a challenging yet cathartic read.