Photograph: Werner Schmidt

Monday, May 5, 2014

Book Review: Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin

Hard cover edition
The year 2013 was a good year for rowing books. In August, for example, Olympic champion Katharine Grainger came out with her autobiography Dreams do come True. One rowing book, which was published in June, has frequently come up on this website, Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, which we reviewed on 19 August. Brown’s book was nominated for the prestigious British award the 2013 William Hill Sports Book of the Year, which HTBS’s Tim Koch wrote about on 27 November. Tim stated that whether The Boys in the Boat won this award or not ‘it is already the HTBS Book of the Year’ – unfortunately, Brown’s book did not win the William Hill Sports Book award, instead, it went to Doped by Jamie Reid.

Of course, I agree with Tim, but would like to make a small adjustment, or should I say, addition, because while The Boys in the Boat for sure is the best non-fiction rowing book of 2013, the award for the best fiction rowing book of that year would, without question, go to the novel Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Flat Water Tuesday, which also came out in hard cover in June 2013, will be released in a paperback edition in the U.S. High time for a HTBS review of the book.

Flat Water Tuesday is about Rob Carrey, a teenager from a working-class background, who arrives at the posh private school Fenton School in Connecticut, on a rowing scholarship. For many years this elite school has rowed against its rival school, Warwick, in a coxed four race on a Tuesday afternoon. Despite being a champion sculler – and in the beginning of the school year, Rob naively believes that he will continue to scull for Fenton School – he has been picked for a seat in the so called ‘God Four’, as the crew for a couple of years has lost this, the most important, race of the year to Warwick.

But there are tensions within the crew and already from the start there is rivalry, almost enmity, between Rob and the team captain Connor Payne, who comes from a wealthy family, whose high expectations of him can only lead to disaster. Not only do the young men fight (and they very soon actually get themselves into a fist fight) each other in whatever their rowing coach, Canning, is throwing at them – and that is a lot – there is also a rivalry between them for the crew’s female coxswain, Ruth, who is more focused on her job in the cox seat than her actual school work. The closer the crew gets to the Tuesday race against Warwick, the more they display an unhealthy competitive spirit, especially by Connor.

Ron Irwin

Author Ron Irwin rowed at high school in Buffalo, NY, at Kent School, CT, and at Trinity College, CT, and it is a great pleasure to see how he is guiding both the rowing-knowledge and the non-rowing readers through the chapters of the narrative that have the ‘rowing scenes’. Anyone who is interested in the sport of rowing will be glad to read how accurate our beautiful sport is told. While I vividly still remember the horrid tests on the ergs, I had totally repressed the bench pulls – till I read Irwin’s novel. However, while we rowers would happily be content with a novel about the God Four and its struggles before, during, and after their race against Warwick, the readers who do not share our love for rowing might easily have got tired of these parts of Irwin’s story, if they alone formed the entire novel. Well, they do not. Flat Water Tuesday has two ‘levels’, or two time periods, following two threads. Irwin is cleverly telling two parallel stories, one of the young Rob’s rowing at Fenton School, and one fifteen years later, when Rob is in his 30s, being a successful documentary filmmaker who is travelling the world.

It is after a film shoot in Eastern Africa, on his way to his girlfriend’s flat in New York, Rob is reading a letter from one of his teammates in the God Four. Later he is reached by the news that the letter writer has jumped from a bridge and killed himself. He receives a phone call from Ruth pleading with him to attend their class 15-year reunion at Fenton. Rob knows that if he goes, he will have to confront the many demons that grew out of his year at Fenton, and at the same time deal with the looming break-up with his girlfriend Carolyn, who at one time was pregnant with Rob’s child. When she had a miscarriage, Rob was unreachable on a film shoot in Africa, and she still blames him for not contacting her during her pregnancy.

Paperback edition
If, for a short while, I would put myself back in my literary studies at Lund University in Sweden, and remember what my professors back then would ask from us students; to perform a close-reading or dissection of the text and count up the different themes in the novel, I would come up with themes like rich and poor; happiness and tragedy; victory and defeat; youth and maturity; and love and lost love – all the great themes in our lives and in great novels. And Flat Water Tuesday is a marvellous novel, not only for rowers, but also for everyone who enjoys a well-written story. Irwin’s language is beautiful, even poetic in certain parts, and it carries us readers, uneasy at times, to the end that will reveal what happened one tragic evening at Fenton and which forever would change the lives of the young members of the God Four. But at the end there might be hope and reconciliation.

Flat Water Tuesday is an amazing novel.

Flat Water Tuesday can be ordered at Amazon, here, or buy it or order it via your local book shop, wherever you live.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, HTBS will post a long interview with Ron Irwin.

Macmillan Audio has kindly released a free listening sample of the first chapter of Flat Water Tuesday for HTBS readers:

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