Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Meet Rosemary, 86, and Kate, 26: dreamers, campaigners, outdoor swimmers...
Rosemary has lived in Brixton all her life, but everything she knows is changing. Only the local lido, where she swims every day, remains a constant reminder of the past and her beloved husband George.
Kate has just moved and feels adrift in a city that is too big for her. She's on the bottom rung of her career as a local journalist, and is determined to make something of it.
So when the lido is threatened with closure, Kate knows this story could be her chance to shine. But for Rosemary, it could be the end of everything. Together they are determined to make a stand, and to prove that the pool is more than just a place to swim - it is the heart of the community.
Many thanks to Rebecca Gray from Orion for my copy of The Lido to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
I still can't believe that The Lido by Libby Page is a début novel so stunning is it in its execution. From the very first page as Rosemary wanders through the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells of the Brixton market and the various stalls and shops, the reader is instantly transported to a unique part of the world. The author shines a spotlight on just one tiny corner of London but brings to life the community and its residents with a respectful and caring nature to her writing. This is a novel of friendship, of coming together for one common aim, of in life how we often have to swim outside of the lanes. For all the characters involved go through major changes and come to realisations and this is all through their one common cause to save Brockwell Lido from closure.
But this more than just a story of a campaign to save a fundamental part of the neighbourhood that has been the backdrop to many people's lives for countless years. In trying to stop the destruction of a solid, stable feature in the daily routine of Rosemary and soon to be the same for Kate, the pair strike up a unique relationship and in doing so each will help the other with fears and troubles that up until this point they would have rather remained under wraps and protected. As the characters develop they are allowed to show their vulnerability and weak points and in doing so their life experiences alter but will it be for the better or make things even worse?
Libby Page's writing is a homage honouring the lido and shows how significant it is in the lives of so many. It's not just a place where you come to swim outdoors at all times of the year. It is a meeting area where unexpected friendships develop. Where a young boy escapes from school and once he is at the bottom of the pool feels like he is the only person in the world. For the lady in the final stages of pregnancy she experiences a weightlessness, a sense of freedom before her new arrival. For Rosemary, now aged 87 it is a source of routine which she sticks to rigidly as always but even more so now her beloved husband George has gone. The Lido has been the backdrop of her relationship with George, from the first flushes of love, to marriage and right through to the time George left this earth. For Kate, it is a new experience brought about by the threat of the lido's closure. As she stumbles across this special place surrounded by the local park and the flats where Rosemary lives it may have all just come to late to save her or even it. But she won't go down without a fight and neither will Rosemary.
Kate was a brilliantly written character who goes through a major transformation throughout the book, it's almost like the threat of the lido being lost forever spurs her into action. Up until this point in her life she had been sleeping so to speak, lost in an endless cycle of misery and loneliness but now a ray of light is shining through, creeping over Kate giving her over a period of time the strength and ability to shift the darkness wanting to invade very corner of her life. I can't say Kate's life was fully comparable to mine but there were elements of what she was experiencing that I found myself nodding along in agreement with. Her character was written with such sensitivity and tact but yet the reader can feel the tension and anxiety radiate off her. She is trying to swim against the tide with little success but the friendship she develops with Rosemary, and the remarkable bond that ensues, might help her to alleviate the fear and panic but this does not come easily as nothing in life truly ever does.
Kate moved from Bristol to Brixton to work at the local newspaper The Brixton Chronicle but life for her is not easy. When not at work she spends her life in bed eating ready meals in the bedroom of a house she shares with people she does not know or interact with. She feels as if she 'is living under a cloud. It follows her wherever she goes and however hard she tries she can't seem to outrun it'. When asked to write a story about the future closure of the lido in order for the Paradise Living property developers to turn it in a private gym and tennis courts for the residents of their flats, Kate jumps at the chance to stretch her creative writing talents. Notices of lost pets have now lost their challenge and appeal for her. 'This story is like a ball thrown to her from the editor and she is not going to drop it'. Little does she know this ball so to speak as given by her editor will set in motion a chain of changes for all involved and Kate becomes far more deeply involved in the story that she ever expected.
As Kate navigates her way through the story we learn more about the Kate the person behind the façade/role she plays as a journalist. She is desperately lonely and adrift 'Kate's loneliness sometimes feels like indigestion, at other times it is a dull ache at the back of her eyes, or a weight that makes her limbs feel too heavy for her body'. The panic ever lingering close by waiting to pounce on Kate can strike at any time and I felt every bit of her anguish and suffering. 'On her worst days it is not just her own worries that consume her but a gnawing fear at the state of the world, a terror at the huge sadness she knows is out there. In these moments it is as thought she is in a black hole and all the anxieties in the world around her are sucked inside until she is completely filled with darkness'. She lived on a knife edge and wasn't comfortable in her own skin. At times in the first half of the book, it felt like she was going though the motions of living without gaining any real pleasure from anything in life. Could the story of the lido be her saving grace?
For Rosemary the lido is more than just a rectangular shaped hole in the ground filled with water so people can swim outdoors at their choosing, it is a place that holds so many dear special memories. Being at the later stage of her life she clings to these memories and does not let them float away. Her morning ritual of a swim at seven o'clock is something she clings to. It gives her a focus, a goal and she does not like to deviate from it. She has her regular day to wander through the market gathering her supplies and traders know her by name and they share their news and exchange snippets of information or stories. Rosemary also has a set day for meeting her friend Hope for coffee. She does not like their friendship to go by the way side now that the library where they worked has been closed. It's only now they realise what they lost with the closure of the library and they do not wish the same to happen with the closure of the lido. Rosmary views the lido as being 'special and it is familiar and nothing else will be the same'. Rosemary is the one constant surrounded by a city that is forever changing and as she stands on her balcony and observes the lido she questions whether she can keep going if that beloved sight is no longer there? With it gone will all the memories it has created for her vanish too? She is in danger of losing the place she calls home, her sanctuary, her refuge just simply the place where she feels most comfortable and that cannot be a good thing.
I thoroughly enjoyed how every few chapters took us back in time as Rosemary recounted her fledging relationship with George and then all the subsequent major and special events they experienced. The lido holds such significance for Rosemary that to see it gone would cause untold anguish and suffering. As Rosemary will not let Kate interview her unless Kate goes for a swim in the lido, Kate has to face a fear. How brave she was considering the reader knows all the thoughts and trepidation running through her mind. But Rosemary is a very wise and experienced lady and over the course of the story the fight to save the lido does not fade into the background but yet a remarkable and extraordinary relationship develops between the pair that makes both the characters and reader understand that the things we take for granted are actually very important and shouldn't be lost or not utilised.
Throughout the story, there was such exquisite writing with each word so carefully chosen and placed to convey as much as possible. There was so much meaning to absorb from various paragraphs that there were countless times where I had to simply stop and reread. For Kate the lido soon finds a place in her heart and with photographer Jay by her side cataloguing the protests, petitions and fights to keep the lido open alongside her daily swim Kate begins to feel a turnaround in her outlook on life. 'She thinks not for the first time, that it has only been since she discovered the lido-or it discovered her- that she has really started to live. When she floats in the cold water it is as if her sense of self and all the anxieties that are carried with that float away too.' She comes to feel invincible like she can do anything.
The importance of friendship, the value of community and how ordinary people can protect the things they love the most are all highlighted here in this brilliant story that will deeply touch and affect everyone who reads it. All the buzz I have seen online regarding this book has been worth it. There is always a slight nervousness when beginning a book that you have seen everybody love and rave about that you may not feel the same. Then you question your own opinions but thankfully here every bit of favour and love for the lido was justified. It is a beautiful, warm, all encompassing book and an utter triumph for Libby Page. Don't leave it too long before you pick up and enrage with the wonderful story of Rosemary, Kate and of course the lido.