Cristina Sandu's The Union of Synchronized Swimmers (Book*hug Press) follows six young women as they train for and journey to the Olympics. But unlike most of their fellow athletes, they're not just there to swim. As citizens of an oppressive, unnamed Soviet nation, they are facing their one and only chance to escape (much like real life athlete, ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who famously defected from the USSR after a Toronto performance in 1974). The novel follows each woman's path after the games, weaving their varied narratives and choices into a breathtaking literary work.
Sandu, who speaks six languages, translated the book herself. She's considered one of Finland's most talented young writers, winning the Finlandia Prize, the preeminent Finnish literary prize, for her first novel. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers is her second book and is already winning awards in its Finnish edition.
We're excited to share an excerpt from The Union of Synchronized Swimmers with you today, courtesy of Book*hug Press. In this section, a beautiful example of Sandu's spare, resonant prose, we follow Sandra, one of the swimmers, on a tense drive through the countryside with a stranger.
Excerpt from The Union of Synchronized Swimmers by Cristina Sandu:
SANDRA, THE PYRENEES
Sandra gets into the man’s car. She chooses the back seat; the front would be somehow too intimate. Through the rear-view mirror, she notices the scar on his face: a pale red line from forehead to lips across the left eye.
My name is Sandra, she says after they have been driving in silence for a while.
Gustave, the man, grunts and stretches his hand toward the back seat without taking his eyes off the road. The hand is surprisingly small for such a large body.
Thank you for stopping.
Gustave does not answer or look at Sandra. She is just another piece of luggage riding in the back seat.
She hopes he did not get offended about her informal way of addressing him. The French are so sensitive about these things.
His head, sparsely covered with patches of brown hair, moves slightly. The sun has burnt the bald spots and the skin is peeling. His sunglasses look strangely thin for such a wide face. His red Coca-Cola T-shirt is too tight.
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Suddenly his back starts to shake and he chuckles: Thank yoo.
Thank yoo, that’s what you said. Thank yoo and stouping.
After chuckling for a while, Gustave becomes serious and says: We have a long journey ahead of us, mademoiselle. I hope you’re not easily carsick, the road is winding.
I’ll be all right, Sandra snaps.
Okay then. I’ll drop you off in the next town. From there on you’ll have to figure out something else.
Iz it fine? Gustave turns his face toward the back seat, his mouth and eyes filled with mirth.
Sandra looks for an answer, something witty to say, but she is afraid her French will just amuse Gustave further. She crosses her arms over her chest and stares, stubbornly, at the landscape.
Gustave sneezes and the laughter is gone.
The houses become scarcer and disappear behind the hills, which soon deepen into mountains. Sandra has never seen mountains before. They are amazing. The farthest ones are deep green-blue, the colour of a lake, even if nothing seems to flow or ripple in this hot landscape. Her quicksilver eyes take on their colour.
Gustave stretches his arms and leans backwards so that his seat pushes against Sandra’s knees.
Now the landscape is made of yellowing meadows on one side and a thickening forest on the other. Grassland slides down the valley; forest climbs up the mountain. Sandra wipes her sweaty face with her shirt and quickly smells her armpit. She closes her eyes and imagines she’s already there, in the big city.
When she opens her eyes, she notices Gustave staring at her through the rear-view mirror. He has said something; the raised eyebrows reveal the question. He places his sunglasses in the cup holder.
Why are you carrying such a big bag with you? he repeats, impatient. His voice is hard, and it bends into laughter when he adds: Looks like you are on the run.
I’m moving. To Paris.
He raises his eyebrows. To Parrhis! Ambitious then.
Yes, Sandra sighs, trying to hold on to her smile despite feeling increasingly annoyed. I need a change, she says, pronouncing each word extremely carefully. She scratches the purple polish of her fingernails. Pieces of it rain down on her thighs, which are bare beneath a pair of blue shorts.
Well, that is some change, Gustave says, and rubs his eyes, looking bored.
Sandra blows her fringe aside and looks at Gustave intently, but he seems to have lost interest. Now it is Sandra’s turn to stare: she lingers on his scar. It divides his face neatly in two. He notices her gaze and responds to it with a fierce look. Her face flushes. She is just about to turn her eyes away when he lifts a finger to his forehead and runs it, very slowly, along the scar.
A blind lion did this, Gustave says when his hand is back on the wheel. Suddenly his voice is low and solemn.
My old man was one of those, you know, exterminators. He would drive from one customer to the other, pesticide equipment and all. One couple, both of them circus animal trainers, hired him to get rid of ants in their house. I went along with him. The house was big and white, like a castle, you know, and there was a lot of colourful stuff growing in the garden. We waited.
He slows the car down and crouches over the wheel as the branches of big chestnut trees claw the windshield.
A guy came to greet us, walking a blue-eyed lion that he closed in a big cage next to the swimming pool, Gustave says. A woman, the man’s wife I guess, waved at us from the balcony.
Every now and then Gustave lifts his face to see Sandra through the mirror, like he’s weighing the effect his words have on her.
They went inside the house, the guy and my old man, he says. I wanted to stay outside.
The treetops from both sides of the road form thick green arches. Their large leaves do not let any light through.
Didn’t the lion scare you? Sandra asks. All of a sudden she is cold, despite the heat.
Scare! No, she was amazing. She was the most beautiful animal I’d ever seen.
His words boom in the car, dark in the leafy umbrage. Suddenly he seems to remember something that softens his face. Light floods the road and washes over an army of orange flowers, gleaming the way only mountain flowers do.
I saw all kinds of things with my father. But none of the animals were as beautiful as that lion.
His voice is even louder than before when he says: I just couldn’t help it. Stay on the porch, they said, but I had to go to her. Real close. He uses his thumb and index finger to show how close to the lion he had dared to go.
Sandra nods vigorously to show she understands the significance of what he is telling her. She feels sticky. Tree roots bulge out of the road, causing the car to bounce. Some leaves are burnt yellow by the sun, and they make Sandra wonder whether the trees in Paris turn red in autumn and—
I can’t really see with my left eye!
Sandra refocuses her gaze on the rear-view mirror. When observed carefully, the surface of his left eye seems cloudier than the right one.
Isn’t it difficult? Isn’t driving, for example, difficult... with one eye?
Just then, the car reaches an abrupt curve, and Gustave serenely steers the wheel, making it turn very softly.
All my other senses have sharpened, he says. I hear, taste, smell better than before. When I’m in the forest, I can even hear all kinds of little animals, far away.
There are no more flowers beyond the trees, but instead a bleak, rocky hill coloured by lichen. The hills radiate a heat that condenses inside the car.
I was supposed to take over the company, after my old man died. But it wasn’t my thing.
And now you...?
The road pulls itself into a straight line, and Gustave’s grip on the wheel relaxes, his hands barely touching the brown plastic. Despite the open window on Gustave’s side, the car smells of perfume and sweat. It smells of the two of us, Sandra thinks, and pulls the hem of her shirt down. The torn, fake leather of the seat makes her thighs itch.
How come you’re all alone? Gustave asks suddenly, as if this detail has been bothering him.
As I said, I’m moving.
But all alone, and such a young woman, all kinds of bad things can happen, he says. Then he points his thumb at his chest and declares cheerfully: You’re very lucky I saved you.
Sandra is thrown forward when the car drives over a big hole. Glancing over the seat she notices what’s lying next to Gustave. She opens her mouth, but her voice is stuck in her throat. It must have been hidden under the magazines when she got into the car, or maybe it had always been visible, lying there naked, a third traveller. The blade isn’t that of a little knife but of some sort of scythe.
The car mounts higher, advancing increasingly slowly. Down in the valley the fields are tiny. Gustave holds the wheel with one hand and, with the other, groaning, rummages for something in a plastic bag. A water bottle appears in front of Sandra. She grabs it stiffly. She doesn’t look at the blade next to him, but it thrusts into her field of vision: a crescent shining in the undernight of the front seat.
She takes a tiny gulp. Most of the water streams down her chin. She locks eyes with Gustave through the mirror. Sweat makes his scar glow.
You were thirsty, he chortles, taking the bottle. He drinks, his eyes on the road, lips protruding like those of a child.
The car stops suddenly. They are now completely away from the forest. The sunlight is falling on a few fruit trees that stand proudly against the mountain wall.
Gustave stretches his arms clumsily and sighs: What a drive.
Unlike before, he doesn’t look for her face in the mirror. Instead, he turns his head slightly toward her, but not enough for their eyes to meet. He only moves the pupil of his right eye.
Let’s stretch our legs a bit, huh? he says, and yawns, but it all seems rehearsed. He stumbles out of the car but does not, to her surprise, grab the knife. He takes a few steps. He fingers his pants, and Sandra hears a relieved moan and the sound of urine splashing on the ground. Then he turns to the car, bends down, and picks up the knife.
She was right. The object isn’t a simple knife; its blade forms an arc. There are no birds, no wind. Gustave knocks on the half-open window. She tugs at the belt. Her damp fingers slide down, then: click. She opens the door, stumbles out. The gravel road is burning. Sweat drops blur her vision.
Suddenly Gustave flings the blade up. He uses it to dig something from under a nail and then wipes it with his shirt. He stops for a while just to look at the landscape, squinting. Then he approaches her. He walks next to Sandra, then past her. The blade turns.
A tree shivers and a round, glowing object falls into his hand.
Take a bite, he says, and hands it over to her.
She looks at the orange in her hand. She digs her teeth into it.
Gustave laughs, a deep roar, and asks: Is that how Parisians eat orrhanges?
Cristina Sandu was born in 1989 in Helsinki to a Finnish-Romanian family who loved books. She studied literature at the University of Helsinki and the University of Edinburgh, and speaks six languages. She currently lives in the UK and works as a full-time writer. Her debut novel, The Whale Called Goliath (2017), was nominated for the Finlandia Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in Finland. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers, which won the 2020 Toisinkoinen Literary Prize, is her first book to be published in English.