As in her well-received first novel, The Cage, Audrey Schulman's Swimming with Jonah (Avon Books, 261 pages, $32 cloth) places the central character in an exotic locale where she is tested physically and mentally. (In the case of the latter, student heroine Jane Guy feels her most important tests are on the life sciences.) Both heroines are only children who were raised amid the punishing silences of a family cold war and who have turned inward. And both are extremely good company-at least for the reader who appreciates women who inhabit their bodies, and their lives, like alert new tenants in a dangerous neighbourhood.
In Swimming with Jonah, Jane Guy initially sees herself as "Daughter of Dr. Augie Guy. Overweight, wants to be a doctor. Limps." Her father is a famous, and uncommunicative, anesthetist, her mother, a retired ballerina who "always said looking your best was close to actually being your best". Jane in contrast is a bit of a wreck: shy, eager-to-please, and unsuccessful as a student.
After Jane fails to gain admission to any American medical school, the Guys settle on an Indonesian university where entrance is secured by cheque book, and the medical school is reminiscent of "boot camp". Students are terrorized into studying by a faculty which receives performance bonuses based on U.S. board exams, and the ne'er-do-well offspring of well-to-do parents are confined to the island for four years unless they quit or are kicked out. As the jungle and finals close in, class size, not surprisingly, shrinks dramatically.
Through Jane and her classmates, Schulman exposes the mass exaltation of the medical profession and how it draws unlikely candidates hungry for respect, money or the power to "solve other people's problems". She lays bare the gruelling realities of med school. But she also allows for the inadvertent appreciation of the wonders of the human body: in anatomy labs, with corpse and carpentry seemingly far removed from her view of medicine as "an act of grace, a benediction", Jane finds her humanity in the mechanisms and connective tissue that hold everyone together. Schulman's descriptions of the body's inner architecture, as viewed by an initiate articulating a newly acquired vocabulary, are moving: Jane rediscovers herself literally from the inside out.
Marlene, Jane's chain-smoking, gum-snapping roommate, provides much of the external action and some of the wit. When presented with her lunch, she pronounces, "Homus burgus... The patient present with a sizzling high temperature, complete paralysis from the bun down, no apparent pulse or respiratory functions and a bit of onion halitosis". Generally, the humour is more subtle, woven in with poignant observations. Schulman delineates the fragile alliances among classmates under stress, the urge to turn to alcohol or each other for solace.
In the process, her sentences rarely falter; although they can extend for over half a dozen lines, they are saved by rhythmic repetition. There is a poetic sensibility at play, which brings a freshness to well-trodden subjects. The overall effect is lyrical and mesmerizing.
A Montrealer by birth, Schulman captures the oppressive heat of the tropics as viscerally as she does the polar chill in The Cage. Both novels are marked by a pervasive feeling of nature's menace and a watchful male gaze. Strangely, though, given her self-proclaimed love of travel, Schulman's descriptions of the locals and their customs are among the few tin notes in the entire arrangement, which is otherwise skillfully brought to several crescendos of tension.