Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Swimming Lessons came out last year, and is Claire Fuller’s second novel, following her stunning debut Our Endless Numbered Days. There are some similarities in the themes and characters of the two novels, which can indicate towards Fuller’s literary style. They’re both character-driven novels that look at family dynamics through the years. In both novels we see a young female protagonist in the present and the past, with her relationship to her father being the focus. In Swimming Lessons however, the past is not so much about her as about her parents’ marriage.
Swimming Lessons is divided into two narratives: in the present we see Flora, the youngest daughter of Gil Coleman, a once-successful novelist, going back to her childhood home after her sister, Nan, phones her to tell her that their father has been in an accident; told through letters written over a month in 1992 and tucked away in some of the books that are overflowing the Coleman household, the second narrative comes from Ingrid, Gil’s wife who disappeared after writing the last letter. As the family reunites in the Swimming Pavilion, Gil’s only family inheritance, Ingrid’s 12 year absence looms over them. Flora is certain her mother is still alive, a belief fueled by her father since childhood, while Nan, and ultimately Gil, have resigned to the fact that she might actually have drowned. Gil’s immense collection of second hand books holds a series of letters Ingrid wrote him while he was away promoting his book A Man of Pleasure, in which she analyses their marriage. She tells him things he doesn’t know about the time she was his student at university, what was happening to her over the years while he was isolated in his writing room, how their daughters grew up while he was away to London. The more the letters reveal, the more we see that Flora’s perception of her father relied on self-told lies and hidden truths.
Gil is an interesting character, as he is projected through Ingrid’s lens in the letters section of the book, and in the rest of the chapters he is rarely talking with clarity about Ingrid or their past. Our perception of him changes with every story Ingrid tells, but there is one particular scene that Flora recalls from her childhood that shows us something about the man he has become in his old age, but also about the book’s overarching theme which can be felt in Ingrid’s life as well:
“It’s difficult to live with both 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. A balancing act.”
“Do you do the balancing act?” Flora asked.
“I do,”her father said.
“Then I will too.”
This balancing act doesn’t end well for Gil, and it seems to be the same balancing act that was the greatest source of suffering for Ingrid herself: hoping that her marriage could be saved, and yet raising Nan on her own in a deserted house while her husband was off to London, or shut out from the world in his writing room.
The plot is simple and somewhat slow, but the internal odysseys of Flora and Ingrid are recounted with the same level of detail and insight that made Our Endless Numbered Days such a gripping story. It has the same heart and the same beautiful language. We need more fiction like this.
Successfully impersonated a student of English literature for three years, and is now doing a masters in Publishing. Interested in the direction English literature is taking in the 21st century, noir comics, beautifully shot films. Can bore you to death with Hollywood trivia, extensive knowledge of Leonard Cohen, and La La Land.