Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Reviewed by Annabel

I reviewed Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, for Shiny upon its publication (here) – I loved it and was delighted when she won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels, (indeed it was my book of the year too, I loved it that much). Her second novel, therefore, had a lot to live up to. I needn’t have worried, for while Swimming Lessons is very different, it is as assured, layered, profound and affecting as her first.

Gil Coleman is browsing in a second-hand bookshop when he finds a letter tucked into a book he thought he might already own…

Trembling, Gil had sat down beside the cup and turned the book sideways so he could open the note without removing it. One of his rules was that the things he found must never be taken from their original location. […] It was another letter, handwritten in black ink, and when he squinted he could read the date – 2nd July, 1991, 2.17 p.m. – and, under that, his own name.

Looking up through the rain at the window, he sees a woman. It’s Ingrid. He rushes out of the bookshop, through the town, onto the promenade above the beach shouting for Ingrid, but the apparition keeps on walking when Gil falls over the rails onto the rocks, remembering that Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months, ‘and he also should have made it clearer that he had loved her.’

It’s a dramatic beginning, which sets the scene for the drama to follow. Gil’s daughters, pragmatic Nan and flighty Flora hasten to their family home, known as the Swimming Pavilion (and home to their father’s collection of books), to nurse Gil. We start to find out about the dynamics of the family – especially in the alternate chapters which are letters from Ingrid, written to Gil during the month before she went, and hidden inside an appropriate one of his books.

The Swimming Pavilion, 2nd June 1992

Dear Gil,

It’s four in the morning and I can’t sleep. I found a pad of this yellow paper and I thought I’d write you a letter. A letter putting down all the things I haven’t been able to say in person – the truth about our marriage from the beginning. I’m sure I’ll write things you’ll claim I imagined, dreamt, made up, but this is how I see it. This, here, is my truth. 

***

I put the first letter I write to you inside The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. Appropriate, for all sorts of reasons. I’ve been thinking that I’ll leave all my letters in your books. Perhaps you’ll never find them, maybe they’ll never be read. I can live with that. 

I loved the witty irony in Ingrid’s choices of books to hide her letters in, bringing little humorous notes to the end of her chapters.

Ingrid tells us how they met – it was the 1970s, he was her English professor at university, known for being a lady’s man – there are echoes of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man in that, but that’s where the similarity ends. Ingrid ends up pregnant, Gil has to leave in disgrace – and so they install themselves in Gil’s seaside cottage, where he has a ‘writing room’ in the garden.

When Nan is born, Ingrid struggles to bond with her daughter, having to scrimp and save to get by. Flora is born five years later, but Ingrid and Gil’s relationship is never easy, especially after he becomes famous as the author of a cult novel. Then when the girls are fourteen and nine, Ingrid has had enough – and disappears.

Ingrid’s best friend Louise had thought that Ingrid would be the successful one, but it is Louise who becomes an MP and Ingrid is resigned to motherhood and housekeeping. Gil, meanwhile, has Jonathan, a larger than life friend who usually brings fun and booze into their lives on his visits. Both friends will continue to play a large part in their lives.

The novel is suffused with watery motifs. Ingrid is a strong swimmer, totally at home in the waves and swimming is an activity that brings pleasure to her, even when pregnant. Her affinity with the sea makes one think of mermaids and the Celtic Selkies who are seals in the water, human on land.

The alternating structure giving the two rather different perspectives on their relationship from the two different timelines was a device that Fuller used successfully in her first novel. It also works beautifully here, teasing out the suspense as we continue to wonder what happened to Ingrid. There is another contrasting duality to the novel too represented by Nan and Flora. Nan believes that Ingrid is dead and is getting on with her life, whereas for Flora, she remains missing and Flora is sure that she will return, like Gil.

This is no ordinary story of a failed marriage. Ingrid’s version may be the main driving force behind the narrative but she says some shocking things sometimes. Gil may be too full of himself and full of failings, yet you can’t help but like him, especially after Ingrid disappears. They both irritate and elicit sympathy in the reader with equal measure, as do the girls. This is a warts and all, no compromise novel, but one written in such lovely prose that doesn’t give away its secrets easily.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Claire Fuller, Swimming Lessons (Fig Tree, 2017). 978-0241252154, 304pp., hardback.

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