"Swimming Lessons" Claire Fuller
Gil's wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. Believing to have spotted her from afar, Gil chases after her but unfortunately this results in him injuring himself which brings his daughters Nan and Flora back home to his side. As they care for him, they begin to confront the mystery surrounding their mother and her disappearance. And the answers lie in all the books around them that clutter up the shelves, hallway and practically any available space in the house.
This book overwhelmed me. I thought "Our Endless Numbered Days" was a treat but with "Swimming Lessons" Fuller has truly revealed her talent as a writer whose use of language is eloquent, exquisite, enchanting and endearing. This is an absolutely beautiful book, completely deserving of its golden cover that will, like the story inside it, shimmer like a star in any book shop display and on any book shelf at home.
Prepare yourself. This review contains excessive gushing and extreme bibliomania.
After Gil's apparent sighting of his wife that went missing over a decade ago, we meet his daughter Flora who has never really accepted that her mother may be dead and continually hopes for her return. Water is an intrinsic metaphor, theme, image and character throughout the entire novel and this starts immediately with Flora's return home on the ferry. I loved the whole paragraph about Flora travelling to "the Pinch" - "the curl of land shaped like a beckoning finger" and her imagining of the ferry sinking subconsciously prepares the reader for Fuller's exploration of death, drowning, swimming, survival and being overwhelmed or suffocated by life. I was completely captivated by the description and lyrical power of Fuller's words.
Flora's story, set in the present, is interspersed with letters from Ingrid from 1992 - just before she went missing. The letters are written from the Swimming Pavilion at night, and she has hidden them in amongst Gil's extensive and eclectic collection of books. Gil has collected books for the "forgotten ephemera used as bookmarks," for the photographs, letters, receipts, drawings, tickets and any bit of paper from which "he could piece together other people's lives, other people who had read the same books as he held and who had marked their place."
"Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind."
It's a fascinating concept and I loved the fact that the title of the book in which Ingrid's letters had been hidden was also included- and that the books chosen were as diverse, eclectic and as pertinent as the contents of the letters.
Ingrid's letters begin with the voice of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood in the late 1970s; a voice of romance, hope, excitement and potential. With her best friend Louise they talk about how they want to be different from their mothers who were "parochial and pointless," tied down by families and houses. As Ingrid says, they were so critical and uncompromising then, in a way only young minds can be - and should be. But for the more astute reader amongst us there is a sense of wary inevitability. The story of Gil and Ingrid's initial courtship really is the stuff of dreams, a enchanting exchange of sharp, witty, clever interaction where both are equal and both are able to shine as individuals. However, very quickly the tone of the letters changes and Ingrid's thoughts become more desperate, more unhappy, more trapped and more hopeless. This with Gil's repeated comments that he should have told her more often how he loved her, chart the changing relationships, dynamics and sadness that starts to threaten the marriage and the whole family.
Ingrid's letters explore motherhood, marriage, being a wife and being a writer. Flora's sections reveal further insight into the family, her relationship with her mother, her father and her sister. Flora is more chaotic, deluded, emotional and Nan for the most part is pragmatic, short tempered, rational and frustrated. She acts as Flora's mother more than her sister and having been older and more aware of what was happening within her family, has suffered differently from the disappearance of Ingrid. The sisters' relationship needs rebuilding. I felt a lot of sympathy for Nan and thought Flora's observation that in a certain light Nan "could be beautiful for a moment like sunlight on the peak of a wave" was an extremely effective way of capturing the effect events had had on the her. The contrast between Flora and Nan - rational v romantic, practical v artistic, realist v dreamer, were well drawn and well employed not just to create good characters but also to add further layers to the plot and themes.
Ingrid's story was totally absorbing. Her voice was so strong and so compelling. Her story is hard, heartbreaking, harrowing and told with such honesty it will haunt me and stay with me for a long long time. I loved the sentence from Flora that "her mother's story trailed along behind her like a second shadow."
I found my feelings towards Gil more complex and more indecipherable. Despite making more notes of quotes he said and underling more statements from him that I found more affecting, despite his apparent emotional intelligence and intellect, he was not a man easy to like. At times he is selfish, self absorbed, thoughtless and short sighted. There is a sense of remorse at the end and a sense that he failed Ingrid and Fuller definitely asks some questions about this family, which although seemingly earns its living from communication, cannot actually communicate with each other. There is too much unsaid, hidden or disguised.
There is a sense of deceit throughout the whole novel. There is a really interesting conversation about the need to find Ingrid's body when a similar story about a disappearance hits the news. Gil argues that finding a body is "more terrible" as "with a body there is no possibility of hope." But the counter argument is that actually, what kind of life is a life when you are left hoping forever: "You can't exist like that, with not knowing." This idea of duality is repeated throughout the novel -again as Gil states several times, "it is hard to live with both hope and grief."
There were parts of Ingrid's story that nearly moved me to tears. Yet there were also parts of Flora's story that were equally upsetting. Flora's recollection of her childhood friend's mother and how much she wanted to pretend she was part of her family were so poignant and revealing. And the misinterpretation of the word "lost" immensely powerful.
I was reminded of Hemmingway and his wife Hadley - or the depiction of their marriage in "The Paris Wife". Hemmingway was a enigmatic character whose artistic devotion had a detrimental affect on Hadley in the long run. I could see similarities between the women and their stories.
I was also reminded of books by Claire King and Carys Bray and the novels "The Finding of Martha Lost" and "The Red Notebook." If you enjoy these, then you will enjoy Claire Fuller -and vice versa!
"Swimming Lessons" is a stunning book. I have written pages of notes, underlined hundreds of quotes, wished that the writing would never end and already thumbed through the pages again and again to indulge myself in the beautiful writing and character studies once more. I don't expect to have done justice to the book with this review and I don't expect to really have managed to articulate my passion for this novel, but I do hope you read Fuller's book and I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did. This is a novel which will be enjoyed by people wanting to read a story about women, marriage, motherhood and coming of age. This is a novel that will be enjoyed by those are interested in the social and historical setting. This is a book that will engage many a book group and hopefully even many a academic discussion. Its appeal will be as wide ranging and multi faceted as the layers hidden within the plot, imagery and characters.
In case you weren't sure, it's 5 star read from me.
"Swimming Lessons" by Claire Fuller will be published on 26th January by Penguin.
Oh, and I found a faded envelop in amongst the pages when I was reading - an envelope with a Christmas card in it from 1951. Wow. Clever. Excellent marketing Penguin Books!
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