Posted on June 2, 2017
21. ‘Swimming Lessons’ by Claire Fuller
Half present-day narrative, half letters written in the past, Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons uses an interesting structure to tell the story of a family troubled by disappearance and betrayal. But before I review it, let’s just take a moment for that incredibly pretty cover…
One half of this book is narrated by Ingrid, who writes letters to her husband Gil, describing their relationship from the very beginning, right up to her disappearance when their children were growing up. The other half is told from the point of view of Flora, Ingrid and Gil’s youngest daughter – now an adult – who has never stopped believing that Ingrid is alive. The chapters alternate between Flora and Ingrid, and I really enjoyed this structure. The conceit of having Ingrid write her story of her relationship with Gil (who is a famous writer and tends to dominate writing and storytelling in this family) is a great way to take the focus off the central ‘artiste’ and focus on a less appreciated character instead.
Having said that, one of my favourite parts of the book was a letter written by Gil (embedded in one of Ingrid’s letters), in which he wishes they could live their life together in reverse. They would start with the dull, humdrum things and the pain of ageing first, progress through the trials of parenthood together, and eventually end their lives – just the two of them – in the first flush of love. I thought that was a lovely idea, and it was beautifully written.
For the most part, Fuller has a fairly straightforward writing style and the story moves along quite quickly; the short chapters kept me reading because I’d think “Oh, just one more” every time I finished one. Sometimes Fuller does edge towards the literary, but I found her recurring ‘symbols’ (e.g. the teeth, the toy soldier) a little heavy-handed at times, like she was waving a flag and saying, “See! I’m being literary!”
This is a book about books. Gil is an avid book collector, and Ingrid hides her letters between the pages of his books. Books are physically present all the time – they literally fill the house and get under the characters’ feet – and titles and authors are name-dropped throughout which invoke certain associations or, presumably, indicate Fuller’s own inspiration. There’s also the fact that Gil is a writer, complete with writing shed at the bottom of the garden and a tendency towards reclusion. Unfortunately, I thought Fuller overdid this quite a lot of the time, and Gil’s character bordered on what I can only describe as ‘wanky’. I mean, who leaves their own party halfway through to go and write? Wanky writer types, that’s who.
Neither was I best pleased with the central relationship between Ingrid and Gil. This may be mildly spoiler-y, although you do find it out fairly early on, but Gil is quite a significant dick. Let’s just say he treats Ingrid less than well, and his attitude towards her often comes across as both careless and creepy. And what does Ingrid do about this? She basically lets him get away with all the crap he throws at her. As the story progressed I found myself shouting, “Just leave him!” and “Use protection!” over and over again, but I had to give up when it became clear that she wasn’t going to. I think this was meant to come across as a beautifully doomed relationship between two passionate but flawed lovers, but ultimately I found it frustrating. I wrote in my notebook when I finished, ‘A tale of two bloody awful parents.’
I think this is a decent book. It has some really beautiful writing and central characters who aren’t likeable but are compelling (if only because you love to hate them). If you want mystery and atmosphere, this is great. If you want realism and hate pretension, maybe steer clear.
“It’s about believing two opposing ideas in your head at the same time: hope and grief.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.