Swimming 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.
After 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.
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.