Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming-lessonsSwimming Lessons is an evocative, thought-provoking novel that begins with an intriguing mystery, evolving into melancholy as the events before and during Ingrid’s marriage, the wife of Gil and mother of two young girls who disappeared 12 years before, are revealed.

The novel begins with Gil standing inside a second hand bookstore, having found a scrap of paper within a books’ pages, moving closer to the window to try and read it. The letter is dated 2 July 1992;  his attention is diverted when he glances out the window and sees a woman in a coat who he believes is Ingrid, who had been missing, presumed drowned for twelve years now.

When chapter two begins with a letter addressed to Gil from his wife dated one month earlier, on 2nd June 1992, a quick scan ahead reveals the novels pattern, alternate chapters, one set in the present around Gil and his daughters Flora and Nan, the other a chronological revelation of the letters his wife wrote to him over that month before she disappeared, each letter placed inside one of the many books that sat on the shelves of their seaside, island home. Twelve years later, he appears to have just (or finally) discovered one of these letters within the pages of a book in the local second hand bookshop. An extraordinary and brilliant concept, it opens the novel with the maximum intrigue and desire to know what went on between these two.

Dear Gil, Of course I couldn’t write the story of a marriage in one letter. It was always going to to take longer. After I finished my first letter I meant to send it straight away. I found an envelope from an old electricity bill in the kitchen table drawer, and thought I’d walk to the postbox as the sun came up before I could change my mind. But perched on the arm of the sofa in the dark with the pen in my hand there was a noise from the girl’s room (the squeak of bedsprings, the creak of the door), and without thinking I grabbed a book from the nearest shelf, shoved the letter inside and pushed it back into place.

swimmingAfter Gil’s sighting, events bring the family together, highlighting their similarities and differences, exposing various family secrets and lies and all the while, each letter like a dripping tap, one by one revealing more of the relationship between Ingrid, the young Norwegian university student and Gil, her literature professor and the very different path her life would take once their lives intertwined.

The letter’s are her story of a marriage, told to him (and the reader) as if he were an outsider, much of the dialogue she recounts is written in the form of conversations they had as she recalls them. She reminds him how they met, portraying herself throughout as a passive participant, her rare challenges of his behaviour ineffectual. Her rebellion or escape, an activity she indulged often, was to abandon the home, walk to the sea, strip and swim out as far as possible, becoming at one with the sea, giving in to its allure.

Ingrid’s story focuses on the marriage, without straying into her past, her home country, her own ambitions or desires. Those omissions create a presence that is never mentioned, that weigh on the reader, who on reading begins to feel the futility of her existence, she is isolated, without friends or family and struggling as a mother, she has forsaken all on a whim, fulfilling desires of a man whose star is in decline, while hers will be extinguished before it has a chance.

allure-of-the-sea

Image from film The Whale Rider based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

She survives as long as she does thanks to the pull, the allure of the sea, the pull to the sea is as strong as any bond she with any of the people around her, and just as she is sometimes abandoned by Gil for the city, so she abandons the home for the pull of the sea.

Swimming Lessons is an incredibly accomplished novel with well drawn characters, including that of ‘the marriage,’ perhaps the chief protagonist itself, as the letters reveal more of ‘the marriage’ than of Ingrid herself.

It is something of an homage to books, readers and writing as they are all given important roles in providing clues and holding secrets of this marriage.

It is a book that invites discussion and would be a provocative novel for a bookclub, there is so much that invites discussion and would likely bring out quite different points of view.

Intriguingly, my copy of the book also had something old slipped between the covers, not a letter, but an old black and white photograph of ‘The Lake’, Alexander Park, yet another intrigue within the intrigue, I’m still wondering where that came from and whose handwriting is on the back and what story that photo could talk, if it could give up more than just a still, lifeless image.

Highly Recommended.

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26 thoughts on “Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

    • It’s certainly an excellent second novel and for me, more thought-provoking than the first, possibly because it’s more complex with the greater number of characters and how they interact and understand and misunderstand each other. It leaves us with a few unanswered questions, which would make it an interesting bookclub selection, it’s a book that needs to be discussed!

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  1. We read ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ in our book group last year, and it was generally much enjoyed. But sadly, it means that since Claire Fuller has been introduced to us that way, we shan’t make her the subject of a future meeting. I’ll just have to read ‘Swimming Lessons’ for myself!

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    • I didn’t really come to it with any expectations regarding her previous work, but I was definitely intrigued by the premise and was really looking forward to it on that basis, it promised to be an intriguing read and though perhaps less of a mystery than the opening pages suggest (which I thought were brilliant, they so pull the reader in), it became something even more than I was expecting, as in, more than just a mystery, it was a deep reflection on a marriage and observation of the different characteristics of family members. Thought provoking indeed.

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  2. Finding things inside books is like a bonus. Even the library books I take out sometimes still have things stuck in there from the last person, or the person before them; recipes, grocery lists, even someone’s math test!

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  3. Now i shall come BACK to read your review, since, as I popped over to see what you were reading, and found this, I chuckled, as i am deep within, so don’t ever read reviews of any book whilst i’m making my own journey, or reviewing my own journey. But i shall come back to read YOUR journey in due course. I’m enjoying mine. i was a bit anxious after Our Endless Numbered Days, since she set herself a hard act to follow. Wise to be making a completely different journey.

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      • Funnily enough, I felt a bit less grabbed by this one (in comparison to her first|) though I did value it, a lot, but what is 4 to 4 1/2 star can often mean that I don’t get round to an immediate review, start something else, and it is more of an effort to collect my thoughts for a proper review. I’ve fortunately or unflortunately read a couple of books I was frothing at the mouth to write reviews for, because the reading experience was so good that I didn’t quite want to let them go when the last page was turned.

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      • I wondered, as I went looking for your review and didn’t find it, this one was a slow burn, thought provoking read compared with Endless Days, and a more ambiguous ending, I found it left more threads needing exploration and would be an interesting one to discuss, for all that the author leaves up to the reader to figure out or judge and that I quite liked.

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  4. I’d enjoyed first book and would have read this anyway but am encouraged that you say this one is more complex – I thought Endless Numbered Days was pretty straightforward. Intriguing and apt that you found something inside your copy – once bought second hand Dickens and inside was written ‘To Alexander June 1940. Come back to me’ – ever since I’ve wondered about it and what happened!

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  5. Hi Claire- so, judging from your review, Claire Fuller uses these letters in a credible way and now I feel more encouraged to read it. Actually, I am guilty of writing and sealing letters, then sticking them between pages of books in order to flatten them. I once had to call my local library to ask if they could retrieve one from a book I had returned about 20 minutes earlier!

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  6. Pingback: Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak – Word by Word

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