Reviewed by Timothy Niederman
Billed as a satire, The Swells certainly begins that way. The main character, Briony, works for Euphoria!, a high-end magazine for the wealthy, but her title, “Luxury Travel Associate Editor,” belies the fact that she herself has no fixed address and little money—homeless and poor, in short. She lives by being constantly on assignment, fed and housed by resorts craving the audience and publicity that Euphoria! provides. Briony’s latest assignment will be the Emerald Tranquility, the most luxurious ocean liner afloat.
The first chapter interchange between Briony and her editor, Gemma, starts things off with broad humour, Gemma being someone who would make Mrs. Malaprop sound learned and articulate. And things continue in that vein, at least for a while. Aboard Emerald Tranquility, Briony encounters an old friend and lover, Terence, who now goes by Teenah, who has taken to dressing in women’s clothing and has a male lover, Kurd. Those two soon begin to dress in similar ensembles, which have been pilfered from the ship’s passengers. The flashy entrances of the couple become a repeated theme throughout the narrative. This is an attempt at bolstering the satirical when the mood gets too serious, but it ends up seeming forced.
The humour is strong for the first few chapters, as the ship docks at various ports for the rich passengers to go shopping at luxury outlets and ignore the locals except to criticize or pity them. But the tone soon changes. The ship’s company—those who cook, clean, and wait on the rich, elderly passengers—take over the ship and roles are reversed. Now it is the passengers who are the servants. The potential for humour is still present, but Aitken chooses to inject an increasingly dark irony into the narrative as the new ruling class begins to adopt the behaviour of the old one. Aitken complicates matters by introducing a gang of pirates, who further erode what is left of the humour, replacing it with violence.
Aitken is a very good writer. He is articulate and uses language adroitly, often with impressive effect (although he doesn’t seem to understand that “rappelling” means to go down a wall, not up. And no, it wasn’t an attempt at a joke). But The Swells seems to have gotten away from him. He becomes too earnest in trying to expose the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful, no matter what their class origins.
It is not that class struggle isn’t a valuable theme. It’s just that it’s been done better before. The Swells simply can’t compete with Orwell’s Animal Farm—and shouldn’t have tried. In sacrificing satire for heavy irony, Aitken loses the opportunity to make his point in a more satisfying and entertaining way. Had he stuck with Briony’s assignment—to write a flattering article about the ship and the people on it (she seems never to take up her pen or sit at her computer)—he could have kept a lighter tone and still delivered his very timely message.
The Swells is published by House of Anansi. It will be released in January 2022.