Title: Swimming Lessons
Author: Claire Fuller
Publication Date: 1 February 2018
‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.’
Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years.
A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?
One of my favourite things about starting a new book is reading the first line – how will the story start? How will the author set the scene? Is that first line going to immediately draw me in? A great first line is so important! So, how does Swimming Lessons stand up to my exacting criteria – “Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.” We have characters, we have a setting and we have intrigue – I definitely wanted to hear more.
Swimming Lessons is about a family unsettled by grief. It has been 12 years since Ingrid Coleman went missing from the family’s beachfront home in Spanish Green, Dorset. A body was never found, yet she is presumed drowned. In the present day, her author husband, Gil, believes he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window and runs after her, resulting in an accident which brings his daughters, Nanette (‘Nan’) and Flora back to their childhood home.
The story is told from two narratives and two timelines – Flora (the younger daughter) provides a current-day narrative as she returns to her family home, causing her to re-visit her mother’s disappearance; and Ingrid (the missing wife and mother) provides a glimpse into the past through a series of letters that she wrote to Gil and hid inside his extensive book collection. Whilst Flora’s chapters provide an interesting insight into the impact of Ingrid’s disappearance on the family, it is Ingrid’s letters which really push the story along. They gradually build a picture of how she and Gil first met and fell in love, before chronicling the progression and, finally, the dissolution of their marriage. It is a story commencing with a forbidden love and ending in betrayal.
It is poignant that whilst Ingrid’s disappearance remains a mystery, her daughters are unwittingly living amongst the piles of books that contain some of the answers they so desperately seek. Ingrid’s letters remain hidden within those dusty tomes. The reader is not told whether Gil has read all of those letters, however given the state of the house when the girls first arrive, it appears that he had found at least one of the letters and had been searching through the books hoping to discover the rest.
Ingrid comes to life through her letters. We know that she had other ambitions as a young woman and we come to understand that motherhood did not come easily to her. The book cleverly provides a rather unusual view on family life and motherhood which gives real insight into Ingrid’s character. There is real depth to the character and, despite her absence, Ingrid comes across as the leading protagonist in this tale. In contrast, the supporting characters remain a bit of a mystery. We do not learn much about Nan at all and all we know about Gil is through Ingrid’s eyes, which tell of a selfish, arrogant and unfaithful man. As a reader, we know of his love of books, his writing frustrations and his fascination with ‘marginalia’, however we don’t know whether he really loved Ingrid, whether he feels guilt over her disappearance or whether he has missed her for the past 12 years. Even Flora, the other main protagonist, is somewhat lacking in depth and I must admit that she was a bit too whiny for my taste. This is really Ingrid’s story.
As an avid reader of books, I did love one particular quote in which Gil says “Forget that first edition, signed by the author nonsense. Fiction is about readers.” I don’t fully agree, as I do have a few much-loved signed first editions. However I do like the nod to the reader. It takes a huge amount of determination, skill and creativity to write a book, and it takes readers to make that book successful.
Swimming Lessons is a tense and uncomfortable tale, a character driven novel which combines an underlying mystery with the grief and tragedy befalling a broken family. It raises the question of whether it is better to know the ugly unpalatable truth of a matter or whether it is better to live without knowing and to be able to retain hope? Fuller has an eye for observation and detail which elevates the story and pulls the reader into the tale. Swimming Lessons is eloquent, slow-flowing, poignant and absorbing.
I listened to the audio version of the book via Audible, brilliantly narrated by Rachel Atkins. At 9 hours 23 minutes long, it was the perfect length to listen to over the course of a week, during my daily commute to and from work.
About the Author
|Image courtesy of Goodreads
Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.
Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons was published in 2017. IT was shortlisted for the Encore Prize, selected as a Book of the Month book in the US.
Claire’s critically acclaimed third novel, Bitter Orange, was published in 2018. .
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