Postal Reading group
July 2022
Notes on the book On the water by H. M. van den Brink

I briefly considered circulating Station eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and rejected it on the grounds that an apocalyptic dystopian fantasy might have limited readership, while that book’s pandemic theme might still be a bit too topical. Instead I finally settled on what is a very personal choice. I first read it about two decades ago and it has remained on my shelves ever since. Although this doubtless says something about my high opinion of the book, with such a personal choice there is the risk that others may not be as enthusiastic. If this is the case then I apologise.

On the water by H.M. van den Brink tells the story of two young boys and their quest for success in olympic rowing. The trouble is that as the summer of 1939 draws to a close, Europe descends into the 2nd World War, the boathouse lies derelict and deserted, leaving Anton to mourn the disappearance of David and the enigmatic German coach Dr. Schneiderhahn.

One concern with this book, therefore, is that the rowing aspect might give it a narrow readership. Compared to some sports, swimming and cycling for example, rowing attracts very little literature. It is also a very specialised sport which receives very little publicity, beyond, perhaps, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. It is therefore welcome to see it being used as the setting for a novel which, with some justification, could be referred to as literary fiction. Beyond that, the author has done a good job of making the rowing scenes accurate and has captured the spirit of the sport quite well. Sufficient details have been included to make them authentic, but without making the book inaccessible to those who don’t row.

I can still remember those first discouraging sessions trying to coordinate the parts of the stroke with keeping the boat upright, while also steering it. Beyond the steep learning curve, rowing is also a demanding sport, and again the author has captured this well: the long hours spent training, the limited circle of friends or team-mates and the increasing estrangement from one’s family. Any rower will recognise the sport’s capacity for eating up spare time as Matthew Pinsent recognised, and that remains true even at club level.

As realistic as this is, however, this is also the coming of age story of Anton. From that first, entirely unexpected, request to join the rowing club, this is Anton’s opportunity to try something different, and marks the point at which he starts to outgrow the secure, but limited world of his parents. It also represents Anton’s first relationship. Although not an erotic relationship, rowing, especially in a boat like the coxless pair, demands a considerable level of trust in what is a very equal partnership. Anton is aware of David’s social standing and good fortune, but in the boat, while training, they are equals. Rowing has always had a reputation as being an elitist sport, and crossing to the other side of the river to ascend to the boathouse, described like a castle (p. 20), must have been intimidating to Anton and his father; perhaps that was deliberate. Although most rowing clubs are now open to all, partly as a result of the post-war social contract, perception changes more slowly and rowing is still seen as being more elitist than other sports.

Beyond seizing upon anything connected with rowing, this book is a deeply personal choice, as for a few years I rowed in a double scull (similar to the coxless pair of this book) with a former Oxford Blue. If I identified myself with Anton, then he would have been David. Academically and socially he had the confidence and ‘presence’ which is often associated with physical strength. Although the social differences were not as pronounced as those between Anton and David, I have often been considered too small for rowing, and have felt like an outsider. That double must have seemed like an unusual combination, but like Anton and David’s pair, it must have been a partnership as we did enjoy a measure of success in local races.

Despite the glorious descriptions of Anton and David’s training together on the water, and the memories of that summer which Anton still holds, this is still an immensely sad book. With the melancholy opening scene by the derelict boathouse, there is an ominous feeling throughout the book; a feeling which only increases with the departure of the coach, and the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics. With the realisation that David was probably Jewish, there is every reason to believe that his own disappearance is a bad sign. However, the conclusion remains unspoken. We can but hope that David got out in time, and that after the war when the boathouse was rebuilt, Anton and David were able to return and fulfil their final promise: “Say it. Say it in words. We’ll go on rowing. That’s a promise” (p. 134).

In conclusion, this is a small but perfectly formed novel. Although ultimately a sad story, the author has perfectly captured Anton’s coming of age and that final summer of 1939 before Europe’s descent into war. The rowing scenes were accurate and captured the nature of the sport well, without, I hope, preventing others from enjoying the book. While there are the obvious social divisions which, to an extent, are still inherent in a sport like rowing, it is worth celebrating that it was also the rowing which united Anton and David, in much the same way as amateur sport hopefully continues to unite people today.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler