My Review of "The Swimming Pool" by Louise Candlish

The Swimming Pool
A good book needs to start with a good first line. Here's how the prologue for "The Swimming Pool" opens:
"I am running naked through the streets of Elm Hill."
Hooked? Of course you are!
It continues in an almost surreal style that had me wondering whether this was a nightmare or reality; a game or a threat. The imagery insinuates a malevolent presence and a foreboding sense of horror with descriptions of "streetlights burning synthetic holes in the darkening sky," the "hostile" air, "near silence" and "thunderous" atmosphere. And then the abrupt statements: "He had done this to me," and "It will never be over."
Quite deliberately, Candlish's prologue is confusing, but the reader is already pulled in, turning the page quickly to try and make sense of what is going on.

The main characters in this thriller are Natalie, her husband Ed, their daughter Molly and the Channing Family. It is set in London, during one hot summer holiday where teachers Natalie and Ed look forward to a long relaxing break. Lara Channing, "less queen bee than citizen queen", has led a project to renovate the local Lido and while visiting, Natalie becomes fixated with Lara and a friendship blossoms. But all is not as it seems..........

At first I found myself drawn to Natalie. She is human and ordinary. She is very distracted with concern for her 13 year old daughter who suffers from "hyper vigilance" and she can't escape the "rush of tenderness when Molly's fear becomes tangible." Her relationships with both Molly and Ed are filled with anxiety, guilt and blame. She is also wrapped up in the usual domestic concerns, a bit overprotective but essentially putting the emotional safety of her daughter above everything else. Her and her husband like order, efficiency and neatness. To me, this really does invite disaster!

Lara is the complete opposite. An ex-actress; wealthy, groomed and walking around with a "casual assumption that Natalie would know who she was and what she had done." After speaking with her, Natalie wonders "how much more arrogant complacency could one parent fit into a statement?" She both irritates and impresses Natalie in a way which takes us back to school and the politics of popularity and friendship. It also reveals Natalie's naivety and impressionable side - or a her need for something different and some sort of escape from the life she has. After one of their brief interactions at the poolside, Natalie says "our parting left me with the absurd sensation of having received the healing touch of Mother Teresa," such is Lara's magnetism and enchanting power. And here begins Natalie's obsession with Lara.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks and flash forwards. The flash forwards take us to the end of the summer holiday where it is clear some dreadful traumatic accident has taken place - although Candlish is very skilled at revealing mere snippets of dialogue and detail so that the reader is unable to fully put all the pieces of the jigsaw together. The flashbacks take us to the 1980s and Natalie's childhood friendship with Meg. Again, there is a sense of impeding danger and a dark secret but Candlish is not going to make it that easy - the reader has to listen to all the clues, hints and implications - holding on to all the different threads- as the tension and suspense mounts. The only thing she makes grippingly clear is that something sinister or disastrous is going to happen.

Meg is like Lara - a leader, someone who has a hold over Natalie. The flashbacks reveal more about Natalie's misconstrued ideas about friendship and perhaps go somewhere to explaining the issues she has with guilt and blame that are also mixed up with her relationship with her husband and daughter. Natalie is flawed and fallible. For me this usually makes characters more appealing, but with Natalie there is also a sense of frustration. Her blindness towards Lara and her desperateness to be accepted by her is a little cringeworthy and it is hard to maintain respect for someone who refers to their new friend as their "saviour from ordinariness," and glows with a "secret pride of how well things had worked out for her if she was my friend now!" As the novel progresses it is harder to sympathise with Natalie all the time. Her daughter has a serious phobia of the water, yet she insists on going to the pool daily in order to orchestrate meetings with Lara as she becomes more and more swept away by them, abandoning her older friends like Gaby with hurtful dismissiveness.

As one reviewer wrote; she is so "entranced by Lara, you want to pull her bak to reality, but at the same time you're desperate to see what happens next." I couldn't agree more. The relationship between them is well crafted with such effective use of cliffhangers and subtle suggestions that gradually an ever whelming sense of apprehension keeps you turning the pages at a rapid rate.

I really liked the writing style. There were some great - almost philosophical -one liners about friendship, relationships, motherhood and life. I particularly liked the reference to how a friendship with Lara was like striking gold and you could never go back to being penniless. I think this was hugely evocative and reminiscent of friendships we've all had at one time when we have craved the approval from the "queen bee" and sacrificed integrity and other relationships in the process.

At some points I found the constant switches between present day, the past and the future a little confusing, particularly as within these different time frames there were further divisions of time of day, but all in all it did help create tension, suspense and excitement. There are so many snippets and clues but never is the entire game given away. In fact, I had to reread the ending as it held so much resonance for each character and was such a defining moment for each one of them. Candlish cleverly pulls out a series of unguessable twists which although on the one hand neatly resolves things, on the other, leaves you full of questions.

It is a thought provoking read. It is full of psychological suspense and I enjoyed reading a slightly different variation of the psychological thriller genre. The novel was hugely evocative of a hot summer which obviously increased the atmosphere of intensity, obsession and danger. It would be the prefect book to take with you to the swimming pool this summer!

I would recommend this book to people who like thrillers, stories about friendship, bullying, women, revenge and dark hidden pasts. If you like a gripping read with "love to loath" type characters and a narrative sprinkled with teasing clues this is for you. Having finished the book a few days ago, the vision of the pool, Lara and Natalie are still very vivid in my mind - definitely a sign of a good read!

My thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair review. I was delighted to be approved having seen the flurry of excitement on Twitter as other readers confessed to being unable to put it down.

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