The Premise: If you’re in the mood for some family drama, Swimming Lessons may well be the book for you. The plot centres on Flora, whose mother disappeared twelve years ago. At the outset, Flora’s ageing father, Gil, tumbles to a hospitalising accident after believing he’s seen his missing-presumed-dead wife. As the family tries to make sense of the past, long-buried secrets come to the surface and people do a peculiar amount of naked swimming.
Thoughts: I maintain a great degree of love for Claire Fuller’s last book, Our Endless Numbered Days (you can read my gushing review here) and a significant part of this was the beauty of the writing. Swimming Lessons is equally lyrical and lovely. The story is split between the present day, third person narrative and the letters that Ingrid, the long-lost wife and mother, wrote to Gil and left in a selection of books, expertly chosen for their titles; the contrast between the two time-frames creates a fascinating disjunct, as vulnerable, aged Gil is revealed to have been a somewhat less sympathetic figure in the past. It’s also a clever way for the reader to get to know Ingrid in her own words, rather than through the contrasting views of her family.
As with Our Endless Numbered Days, Fuller has crafted engaging and flawed characters; Flora is endearingly peculiar, while sensible Nan, the older sister, has never had the luxury of being “quirky,” instead having to act as a mother to Flora in the wake of their actual mother’s disappearance. The supporting characters, like the old family friend who knows more than he’s letting on, and Flora’s boyfriend, who is a fan of Gil’s infamously rude novel, also contribute plenty to the richness of the plot.
As a serial bookworm, I also loved the way in which Fuller weaves book collecting throughout the book. While the descriptions of Gil’s home overflowing with tomes may horrify a neatfreak, I wanted to move in. The writing process is presented painfully, also serving to show how the single-mindedness necessary for success can make a person selfish and distant. And, while I will continue to keep my books in the most immaculate condition you can imagine, I liked reading about Gil’s passion for marginalia and what you can learn about a person from what they underline in their books. It’s nice to read something that’s so concerned with reading.
In Conclusion: Claire Fuller has written another beautiful and appealing novel; while her work is undoubtedly literary, it’s also extremely accessible. Swimming Lessons is simultaneously warm and haunting; I’ll continue to eagerly grab everything Fuller writes.