Jade Song’s 2023 Chlorine is a stand-alone coming-of-age novel.
Ren Yu has a singular talent: swimming. All she needs is an abusive, domineering coach like Jim to invest years into brutally reshaping her as the athlete she could be. What could go wrong?
Ren, as a woman, an Asian American, and the child of immigrants, is already expected to reshape herself to conform to social expectations. Complicating this already impossible task: Ren’s swimming career. Prowess at swimming has its own set of requirements, the physical consequences of which are not at all compatible with American beauty standards. One quest or the other must prevail. For Ren, it’s swimming.
Of course, the demands placed on Ren are unreasonable. Acknowledging this is forbidden. Nevertheless, Ren is aware (subconsciously, as a niggling unease and unhappiness) that the rules to which she is expected to conform are contradictory, absurd, and cruel. With maturity, realization becomes conscious. Ren is none of the things society wants her to be: not white, not conventionally pretty, not chaste, and certainly not straight.
In fact, Ren realizes she is not even human. She is something far superior.
Unsurprisingly, while reading this I was struck by the parallels to dance, something that also physically transforms the performers in ways that persist through life. I have seen this novel described as horror. That’s not unfair but the horrors are entirely mundane. The supernatural elements offer escape.
I am sure that if questioned, Jim, the coach, would insist that everything he did to turn a little girl into an extraordinary athlete was necessary and that any parallels with protracted torture are merely superficial. Realizing his glorious vision justifies any cost, especially since he won’t be the one paying it.
The narrative is first person, told after the fact. The reader therefore has a pretty good idea where Ren will end up, even if young Ren does not. Also, whereas young Ren may not grasp the absurdities and injustices to which she is subject, the Ren relating the story certainly does.
Rather like Palwick’s Flying in Place, one can read the narrative as a factual account of how Ren metamorphosed into something beyond human, or how stress can drive a person completely mad. On the balance, the text supports the first interpretation: Ren may be furious but she isn’t mad.
This is not a comfort read by any means, but it’s certainly enthralling. It’s an effective tale of coping with unreasonable social expectations. Another author on my obsessively collect list….