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no diving allowed

24 november 2023

No Diving Allowed, Louise Marburg's 2021 short-story collection, offers a range of takes on conflict among families and friends. Sometimes the conflict is apparent from the start; sometimes it simmers below a placid surface and then boils over.

The collection begins with pairs of people propelled into violence. In "Identical," twins grapple in hatred. In "Wildebeest" – a sort of 21st-century "Francis Macomber," a neglected husband's rage bursts out in sexual assault.

By the third story, "Creamer's House," I began to realize "There's a swimming pool in each of these stories." In "Creamer's House," the pool barely makes an appearance before the young couple who buy the title dwelling have it torn up and removed. Much to the chagrin of their neighbor, an aging man whose only friend was Creamer and who bitterly resents the new people, though there's nothing objectionable about them.

The title story "No Diving Allowed," and the fifth, "The Bottom of the Deep End," explicitly promise pools. In "No Diving Allowed," an overweight young man flouts a lifeguard's commands, against the backdrop of his sister's divorce. "The Bottom of the Deep End" leads pretty directly to a central character's suicide there: the foreshadowing is so heavy that it's no spoiler to reveal this, and the story may be better if you know the ending.

The swimming pool in "Minor Thefts" is empty; it becomes a vantage point from which a teenage girl observes the sordid breakup of her parents' marriage. "Day Three" only starts at poolside, tracking the breakup of its central marriage as the characters move from poolside to a series of party venues.

In "Attractive Nuisance," the pool is the title object, but the focus is not so much on the pool itself as on the fence that the narrator puts up around it. "Attractive Nuisance" is a superbly-constructed story, winding descriptions of a (happy, for a change) marriage around the character of a neighbor child who upsets but enriches the dynamic of that marriage.

"Dulaney Girls" takes place at a class reunion for upper-crust women. A successful artist appears and realizes that she will always be an outsider in the group: the buffeting of conformity is still withering after all the years. The swimming pool here is a small one with a current, like an aquatic treadmill. It seems both metonymic for wealth and privilege, and metaphoric for getting nowhere in life.

"Let Me Stay with You" is another remarkable, unsettling story. The protagonist, whose marriage has just collapsed, goes to stay with American friends in France. (Inevitably, they have a swimming pool.) He befriends the couple's teenage daughter, and learns from her that the happy family, which includes another man as long-term house guest, is perhaps no happier than the family he's just been expelled from. It's a story about what we can't know about other people, and the ways they in turn misunderstand us – and an exceptionally good one.

By contrast, the events in "Pulling toward Meanness" seem to happen too fast: an apparently happy marriage between two women, one of them pregnant, disintegrates in a mere ten pages. But perhaps on a second read, the fissures in the relationship are apparent from the start (each wants to vacation in a place the other hates, for example). Things fall apart even faster in "Play Nice, Be Good," and then reassemble themselves almost as quickly; one gets a sense of a family condemned to perpetual interpersonal mood swings.

"All Pies Look Delicious" is another miniature family-and-friends saga, remarkable for its balance of potential violence against a pattern of caring and coping. The volume closes with "Talk to Me," an innocuous title for an arresting story that has many edges: it portrays the honeymoon of two people who have married, for many wrong reasons, late in their lives. One hint that things aren't as they should be: he wants to swim in the ocean; she prefers a swimming pool.

Marburg, Louise. No Diving Allowed. Raleigh: Regal House, 2021.

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