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.

Click to Buy a Copy of Swimming Lessons 

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Lotusland by David Joiner

LotuslandLotusland starts out with the main protagonist Nathan, taking a long train journey from Saigon in the south of Vietnam where he lives, to Hanoi, the capital where he will visit his friend Anthony who he hasn’t been in touch with for some time.

Ironically, he reflects on the many things in his life that he perceives have always been a long wait for him. Ironic, because he is a character who has difficulty keeping a commitment, distracted too easily by the allure of the new and unknown, like the girl with the pink hair he meets on the train, or the attraction and undivided attention he gives to a new feature article he is asked to write, neglecting other commitments.

What follows is a well written story exploring the relationships between these two expatriate American men living in Vietnam, both their relationships to each other and the local women they marry/befriend and their contrasting attitudes to work.

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà Source: Wikipedia

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà
Source: Wikipedia

Nathan, a struggling writer, considers entering Anthony’s real estate business to make money, promising he is serious this time, though his word is rapidly thwarted by his developing relationship with the pink-haired woman, a traditional Vietnamese lacquer artist and gallery owner Le, in the weeks before he is supposed to leave Saigon and move to Hanoi.

“Somehow the mystery of the painting excited him even more than Anthony’s job offer. As he prepared to return to Saigon with the task of wrapping up his life there, the offer paled in importance to the chance he had of getting to know her.”

Anthony, now a successful business owner, husband and father of two small children he can’t communicate with, is barely in control of his rapid success or family life, unsure whether to rely on his friend, though it is clear he needs him for more than just work reasons.

The couples are like the escaped and the escapee, almost doomed from the beginning as they represent that often classic situation of the allure of a foreign culture, where the aims of the individuals are the opposite to each other despite their attraction.

Le has an interview at the American consulate for a visa and has made it clear to Nathan that that is the basis of her interest in him, a fact he seems intent on ignoring, preferring to pursue the illusion of a more intimate relationship.

“How’d it go?” He touched her hand, her arm, her cheek. “You’re still alive, and your body’s intact – all good signs.”

“It went okay,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “It’s hard to tell with Americans. They’re serious but also friendly. I don’t know what’s real. The worst part was dealing with the Vietnamese staff. They look down on people like me.”

It’s an often painful, uncomfortable read as David Joiner makes no excuses for his characters’ flaws and we witness that selfish aspect of humanity in which every person appears to want something from the other yet rarely puts the needs of the other before their own before acting or speaking.

Like a falling trail of dominoes, each person wants something from the next, though rarely is the desire reciprocated, individuals search for that thing just beyond their reach without appreciating what they have at hand. Blindness, illusion, disillusion, the impulse to escape.

It reminded me of a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay A Small Place, on her returning to the island of Antigua where she grew up, after many years of being away.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

David Joiner excels in evoking the sense of being in Hanoi, a city I visited 20 years ago and adored (see my photos above). I was quickly transported back there through his ability to develop a vivid sense of place and found those passages where the action is accompanied by this strong sense of the surroundings captivating.

“In Hanoi the French presence could still be felt, preserved in the architecture and layout, whereas in Saigon the atmosphere still harked back 30 or 40 years to the American era, the notion of aesthetics crowded out by the practicalities of war.”

I was shocked to find myself at the final page, an abrupt ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and likely to provoke discussion about the mix of post-war opportunity, life in foreign cultures, immigration, freedom and entrapment, capitalism and whether and or how it is possible to overcome the clash of cultures within a relationship.

Hanoi by Cheong Source: Wikipedia

Hanoi by Cheong
Source: Wikipedia

Travelling Life’s Long Road – The Bridge Club by Patricia Sands

Reading Patricia Sand’s The Bridge Club feels a little like taking a long road trip with a friend, she drives as we listen to her narrate this story of eight female characters, a condensed version of their lives, her voice like the gentle thrum of the engine, lulling us at times into a companionable silence, we listen and observe the passing landscape of years, immersing into these lives as if they were our own.

After forty years of friendship a group of friends are to spend a weekend at a mountain cottage, a location they have been to many times before, only this weekend will see them face a challenge unlike any other they have had to live through to date. Acknowledging the importance that this group of friends has been in each of their lives, affectionately referred to as BC, the Bridge Club, they each share their SOS, ‘support of sisters’ moment before facing the ultimate test of friendship that awaits them.

They could each identify at least one time or experience, some lasting longer than others, when family or other support was not the answer and the BC had come to the rescue.

In this way each of the characters are introduced and we learn of a significant event in their lives that required this band of sisters to come together and thrash out a problem in a way that left no other option than to resolve the dilemma shared. It gets inside the minds of how a group of women think and they aren’t always necessary in agreement, but by the end they will have agreed on a course of action that has the support of them all and often some kind of intervention as well.

We live through marriage, divorce, adoption, coming out, the premature death of a spouse and it will culminate in that weekend away, where it becomes apparent what the past forty years of friendship has been preparing them for, for nothing less than a rock solid lifelong friendship could endure what they must go through.

A moment of intense quiet followed this exchange, a moment when their connection was almost palpable, with no doubt or hesitation. Their strength flowed from one to the other and bound them together as never before.

By the end of this read, we have had a glimpse into the lives of eight ordinary women, who like every one of us have lived through some extraordinary moments and we can only marvel at how fortunate they were not just to have found each other, but to have kept this bond of friendship together over the years and to have each benefited from the powerful gift that it offered, that magic synergy where the combined intention and actions of a dedicated group surpasses the sum of each its parts.