Editor’s Note: The book discussed in this article deals with sensitive topics such as grief, suicide, self-harm, emotional and verbal abuse, and depression. Readers’ discretion is advised.
Geese Are Never Swans is the fifth book from Granity Studios, as well as the company’s first young adult novel. While novels like Legacy and the Queen and EPOCA were filled with elements of fantasy, Geese Are Never Swans is deeply rooted in the reality of grief. As with other stories produced by Granity, the book focuses on athletes, and in particular the mental health of student-athletes. Written by psychologist Eva Clark in tandem with Kobe Bryant, the book follows 16-year-old Gus, who plans to swim in the Olympics after his older brother Danny dies by suicide.
Danny, like Gus, was a swimmer, revered in his community for his talent and for being a role model to others. Even Gus admired his brother, who taught him how to swim and inspired him to become a competitive swimmer in the first place. But as both brothers improved at their sport, the close relationship between them was fractured, to the point where Gus reacts to anyone who praises Danny posthumously with incredulity. So when Gus decides to aim for the Olympics, it’s not to honor his brother’s memory – it’s to destroy it.
At one point, Gus refers to a journal in which he regularly documents aspects of his life, and one sentence sums up his character succinctly: “I even make note of my mood, which is pretty much a joke, since when am I anything other than wrathful?”
Wrathful is the perfect word to describe our protagonist. Gus’ anger is evident from the beginning of the novel, as his narration is mostly peppered with swears and sarcasm. It can be jarring sometimes, like when he makes an off-color remark about school shootings, but occasionally his tone softens when he interacts with characters like his niece Winter. For a while, it is unclear why Gus is so furious and what his motivations are for pursuing Olympic swimming, and the book’s structure didn’t help. The pacing of Part 1 is a bit strange, as chapters are relatively short but scenes run continuously through multiple chapters. This generated a feeling of having progressed further in the story than I actually had, and I was admittedly confused when I still couldn’t grasp Gus’ motivations 13 chapters in.
Yet, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Gus’ mental health struggles developed in response to multiple traumatic events, and Danny’s death was just a tipping point. Gus’ ambition is both fueled by his love for swimming and his desire to feel valued where he never has.
Clark does a wonderful job revealing aspects of Gus’ personal history, as well as portraying the complex emotions that come with death and loss. She also uses powerful descriptive language that keeps readers engaged. Although the chapter breaks are a bit awkward narrative-wise, they work best when Clark writes prose, usually describing Gus’ thoughts and emotions in the pool. One example is chapter 22, which comprises only of the following:
“I hit the water before anyone else does. A slick shot of power and gravity and utter desire. And you know what? I sure as hell don’t sink this time. I fly.”
Geese Are Never Swans effortlessly captures how the challenges of pursuing one’s dreams can be confounded by pre-existing trauma, especially when it comes to sports.
“We need to take care of our athletes and honor every part of that, not just what we admire of them physically, but also what they’re going through emotionally,” Clark told People.
For this release, Granity partnered with two organizations that support the mental wellbeing of athletes: the Michael Phelps Foundation and The Hidden Opponent. The latter was created by former University of Southern California (USC) volleyball player and PAC-12 champion Victoria Garrick, who said that she was grateful that the organization was included as a resource for young people.
“I was lucky enough to meet Kobe Bryant back at USC,” Garrick said. “A few weeks later, I received a notification on my Instagram that he had followed me, and like any normal person would, absolutely freaked out.”
She then sent Bryant a DM about her early plans for The Hidden Opponent, which serves as a platform for young athletes to share their perspectives on mental health. Bryant told Garrick that he loved the idea and invited her to meet with him and a few associates.
“He expressed just how he thought that this community was something that was really needed as a vision it supported,” Garrick told me, “and from that point on I was just in contact with him and his team about [The Hidden Opponent].”
Garrick’s favorite line from Geese Are Never Swans is “It takes more discipline and mental strength to know when to hold back than it does to push.”
“I just think this is brilliant because we oftentimes think if we don’t give 100 percent or if we don’t go the extra mile as athletes, we’re less than, we’re weaker, we’re not good enough,” she said. “And then here this statement is saying how much strength it takes to know your limits.”
Although Gus regularly pushes his own limits to the chagrin of his loved ones, he eventually learns to let himself breathe. By the end of the novel, readers will be glad to see that Gus begins to find peace.
Oh, and he makes it to the Olympic trials, too.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Featured image provided by Granity Studios