Sink or Swim by Tash McAdam

Cover of Sink or Swim by Tash McAdam. A sepia landscape of the sky, a sparsely treed island, and the ocean.

Review by Louise Brecht

Orca Book Publishers, August 2021

112 pages, paperback, $10.95 CDN, 9781459828513

Ages 12+, Grades 7+

Young Adult, Action & Adventure, Survival, Romance, LGBT

Ahead of them, the ocean spills out, huge and so blue it almost hurts to look at it. An eagle screams and hurtles across the sky, making Bass jump and Rosie giggle. “I’m going to teach you to appreciate our beautiful islands today if it kills us both,” she says….

One half of sixteen-year-old Bass applauds the wry humour in Rosie’s threat. He’s been on edge all day, bubbling with nervous excitement over their first date, the possibility of romance. The sky is blue, the ocean bluer, they’d ditched school that morning, and finally, Bass has the special girl he’d met at Pride Club all to himself. Their plans seem idyllic: a boat trip through Rosie’s beloved islands to her private bay, a picnic on the beach, and lots of time to themselves.

Bass’s other half is fumbling with fear. The ocean terrifies him. If he doesn’t fall overboard and drown, they could get expelled for skipping classes or nabbed for stealing the battered old motorboat Rosie always uses. Even worse, she could get bored with the real Bass and dump him. His inner angst is mid-tussle with his fear of letting Rosie down when a freak storm blows up out of nowhere. The boat capsizes, the pair barely make shore, and when they do, both are wet, bloodied, bruised, cold—and alone. The question is, can they survive?

Tash McAdam’s tale of the twosome’s tangle with nature—an angry ocean, high winds, pounding waves, and driving rain—is a page-turner. The plot is compact and fast-paced, its action as driven by the characters’ choices as it is complicated by the pair’s nascent attraction. No one knows where they are. They have to live through the night before they can find a way off the island, and self-admittedly, protagonist Bass hardly sees himself as Rosie’s hero. The coastal islands are her playground, not his; he prefers online gaming, sports that require a controller and headset, an indoor arena where he can hide away.

But Rosie exudes an aura of confidence, an easy acceptance of his trans identity that wraps Bass in its warmth. His struggle to overcome his insecurities, to be the partner he feels she deserves, is as elemental to the storyline as their external conflict with the storm. The crunch comes when Rosie’s pre-dawn attempt to scale a steep cliff ends in a bone-breaking fall. The only way to reach help is through the still turbulent ocean, and Bass has to decide if he will Sink or Swim.

McAdam’s book is a great fit for its target audience of reluctant or striving teen readers. An act of thievery, a leaky boat, the sudden storm, and a deserted island—hardly the average stuff of first dates—are as instantly appealing as the story’s pair of contrasting characters and its unrelenting suspense. I was particularly drawn to the authenticity of Bass’s first-person narrative. His trans journey is braided into the perilous tale of two teens caught up in the sweet stirrings of love. Written with care and knowledge by a trans author, Sink or Swim exemplifies the concept of inclusivity without tokenization.

Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry in nineteenquestionsPearlsCollage, and Sweatink.

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