It is considered cliché to kick off a book review with a quoted passage, a faux pas that provides the reviewer an easy out for critical analysis and narrative segue. Still, every once in a while, a story collection like Noy Holland’s Swim for the Little One First comes along that’s so meticulously constructed, with prose equally lyrical and crisp, that one considers tossing this cardinal sin to the breeze. Holland’s characters and narrators speak with idiosyncratic flair, born from the hand of a true wordsmith, declaring oddities like “My mucous was of quality”  and “The boy was blind and from Zelienople. He came upon us as a bear-child might, such a slumber, the sow labors in sleep, from sleep heaves up, raving and newly mothered” . They exist both in reality and a dreamlike plane—a place where men use kittens as fish bait, where mice take over a car during a long winter—and this hybrid world, captured in twelve narratives that plumb the depths of the tragic, acts as a lean puzzle that continues to haunt long after being consumed.
Death and injury prowl the volume, arriving in the form of glasslike bones, natural disaster, and human error. “Today Is an Early Out” chronicles the anxiety, angst, and hubris that plagues a family in the moments before a mudslide crashes through their front door, while “Luckies Like Us” lingers over a couple as they separately cope with the aftermath of a traumatic car accident. In the title story, a woman welcomes her father (“How nice you could come to visit. See our home, how we live, how the leaves sweep down.” ) before she recounts the suicide of her brother, Freddy (“I stood under him. His foot crossed under his other foot like the feet of Christ in pictures. He sort of turned in the wind.” ). Her thoughts bend into trancelike, cyclical bursts, and while she lays blame on her father for Freddy’s death—“Your boy killed himself on your birthday. That is punishment enough for many lifetimes.” —she never loses control. Fists are not thrown. Lamps are not broken. Instead, she soldiers forth, acting the part of pleasant host and drawing the reader deeper into her intoxicating, sorrowful words. There is a certain magic in the voice of this nameless narrator, and, quite honestly, throughout Swim for the Little One First. Nevertheless, as she and her kin gradually emerge through taut, rhythmic language, Holland refuses to over-romanticize the terrors and heartbreaks in which she washes each page. The style in no way delves into the land of sap, of the teary eyed, “woe is me” mindset found far too often in contemporary fiction, and the result is a story collection that is both refreshing and authentic, one that reflects the way many of us muddle through the misfortunes of life: we persevere; we survive.