Swim Home to the Vanished: A Novel

Image of Swim Home to the Vanished: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 22, 2023
Reviewed by: 

the author’s voice and language are beautiful.” 

Brendan Shay Basham explores the psyche of a young Navajo whose journey in grief takes him from the desert plateaus of Colorado to a distant and briny coast, evoking along the way the Long Walk still embedded in the collective grief of modern-day Navajos. Damien belongs to one of the water clans prominent in his native mythology, and stories of siren kingdoms and fish-men underpin the novel’s description of a protagonist described as having gills and scales. Damien’s metamorphosis is conveyed in a wavering nod to magical realism that allows readers to imagine his final vanishing as real or metaphoric.

The novel’s protagonist begins a three-part narrative grieving the death of his younger brother on a journey that inextricably draws Damien to water. He’s rescued from certain death on a long trek southward by a goatherd who takes the surviving brother to a Spanish-speaking village on an unspecified coast where Damien’s experience as a short-order cook gets him a job prepping the catch of the day in a local eatery run by a woman suspected of killing her husband.

When Ana María’s daughter is killed, local opinion finds Damien as likely a candidate for Carla’s murder as is her widowed mother, those suspicions giving the character cause later on to lament his “corrosive work environment.” Surviving sisters Marta and Paola trade roles as allies, enemies, or candidates for their sister’s homicide in a languidly related intrigue that only sporadically returns to Damien’s preoccupation with the death of his brother. At one point late in the novel, Damien seems surprised to learn that he has been free all along to leave the brujahs’ fractured and threatening community, but there is nothing in the narrative to justify that confusion.

The author allows direct access to a protagonist whose inner murmurings range from the quotidian to a qualified reality. Damien’s metamorphosis is not as explicit as is Kafka’s familiar character and does not need to be.

Other elements of the novel, however, do need to be better organized. Transitions in narrative time are not always well established. For example, scenes following a funeral introducing Damien to the seaside community that seem to take place over some days or even weeks actually take place in the space of a single day. Flashbacks involving Damien and his brother Kai interrupt randomly. More generally, a Navajo’s journey through grief with evocations of forced diaspora in a transmogrification from man to fish that occur in the midst of a murderous feud involving a troika of Latin women is not well integrated.

In compensation, the author’s voice and language are beautiful. Basham invokes the sense of smell along with visual descriptions of settings and situations that transport the reader to a mythic world that exists side by side with details of the day-to-day. A chum bucket, for instance, serves as a helmet against a tropical downpour. In a similar vein, the author’s own experience sharpens scenes involving the labor of pescatori and cooks, the capture and filet of grouper and chillo and tuna rendered with economic precision. In a similar vein, the author’s use of Diné and Spanish in dialogue makes for compact and authentic characterization.  

The novel’s title intimates a water-borne resolution. Late in the novel, readers are told that the night before he died, Damien’s brother dreamed of becoming a fish. As for the surviving brother—? “Now Damien is truly a fish, maybe always has been.” Grief gets swallowed in small bites in this novel until, at the final vanishing, “Damien will remember he is only hungry for crustacean, and he will yank himself away, snapping the line, and dive for deeper water.”