A story about the sea, swimming, books and relationships. It’s like Claire Fuller was writing just for me.
Despite the blurb hinting that Swimming Lessons is a mystery, it’s not. It’s a book about marriage – specially that of Gil and Ingrid. Gil is a lecturer and a writer, famous for a scandalous novel. He’s also a collector of books, specifically those with notes in the margins and passages underlined.
“Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. 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.”
Ingrid meets Gil at university – she’s his student. Quickly seduced, she abandons her degree, marries Gil, is ensconced in his remote family home and has two children, Nan and Flora. After 16 years of marriage, Ingrid goes missing, presumed drowned but Flora and Gil never quite let go of the idea that she is still alive.
“It’s difficult to live with hope and grief… To keep imagining that we might come home one day and she’ll be waiting for us on the veranda, and at the same time living with the idea that she’s dead.”
The story is told from the perspective of Flora, in the present, and of Ingrid, who reflects on her marriage to Gil in a series of candid letters that she writes but never delivers. Instead, she hides the letters within the pages of different books. Enticingly, the answers to the family’s questions about Ingrid are all within arm’s reach –
“In the hallway, towering piles of books lined the walls all the way to the kitchen. Precarious volumes of paperbacks and hardbacks, cracked spines and dust jackets, rose like eroded sea stacks, their grey pages stratified rock. Many were higher than Flora’s head, and as she walked between them it was clear that one bump might have them tumbling in an avalanche of words.”
While the back-and-forth structure was worryingly predictable to begin with, I was quickly absorbed by Fuller’s clever use of repeated elements, notably the reference to the particular book that each letter was placed in, creating a pattern of stories within stories. The story structure is complex but never once feels contrived. Likewise, there are plenty of twists but none read as far-fetched.
Fuller writes beautifully and the addition of curious little details – mackerels falling from the sky and Flora drawing a skeletal outline on her lover’s skin – makes me think that if I had slowed my reading of this book, more would be revealed.
As it is, we never quite know the meaning of these oddities, which serves to highlight one of the major themes of the book – is it better to know the facts (the reality) or to imagine? Gil says, “Apparently I once told your mother that it was better to live without knowing because then you could always live with hope.” While in one of her letters to Gil, Ingrid writes, “This is what happened, the facts, the reality. I’ve always found that the reality is so much more conventional than imagination.”
Fuller’s descriptions of swimming and the sea were nothing short of stupendous. As someone who loves both things deeply, I appreciate her elemental understanding
“The tide was going out, sucking at the sand, rattling the loose stones, and the sea was the colour of wet denim…”
“A breeze was blowing in from the sea, a tang of military-green weed, and things half buried.”
This is a book about love, motherhood, trust and betrayal, and Fuller maintains exquisite tension right until the very end.
I received my copy of Swimming Lessons from the publisher, Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
“I took his glass of whiskey and put it on the floor behind me, and then I kissed him. He tasted of alcohol and sweetness; of the first spoonful of Christmas pudding after the flame has gone out.”
Which calls for a Harvest Sparkle (via Fed & Fit).