After complaining a few weeks ago about novels marred by the unnecessary use of dual time frames, it was a joy to read Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, a novel which offers a masterclass in how how multiple points of view and time lines can enrich the narrative .
The novel begins with Gil Coleman, an elderly author who takes a tumble when he thinks he sees the wife who went missing (believed drowned) 12 years earlier. His two daughters come together to care for him in the converted swimming pavilion where they grew up. The ghost of their mother Ingrid is ever present but there are also secrets from the past hidden within the house.
This is where the novel becomes really interesting. it’s structured in chapters that alternate between a third person narrative set in the near present and letters written ten years earlier. Those letters were written by Ingrid to her husband before her disappearance. In them she describes her life from when they met as professor and student and their subsequent exile to a seaside village where they lived hand to mouth. As a wife and mother of two she thinks wistfully about “the life (she) could have had” and all her abandoned plans to travel and “see what the world had to offer”.
The heady joy of their first few months together is lost in pain and unhappiness over Gil’s philandering and selfishness and his tendency to distance himself from her and his daughters. Swimming is Ingrid’s only release “from the relentless grind of motherhood.”
In the chapters focused on the two adult daughters who are reunited as they care for Gil, different and sometimes contradictory versions of the past emerge, based on how the individuals choose what to believe about Ingrid.
To Nan, she was a selfish woman who killed herself’ leaving two young daughters in the care of an indifferent father. Younger sister Flora has only vague memories of her mother, remembering the last day she saw her “a waft of coconut—the colour of golden honey again, and Ingrid turning and stepping, turning and stepping out into sunlight.”
She’s never believed that Ingrid died and her father’s supposed sighting makes her more determined to get to the truth about her mother’s disappearance. What she discovers brings her mother more to life, becoming not a shadowy figure but “more concrete, a real person with thoughts and feelings, decisions to make and an understanding of their consequences.”
As readers we pick up clues from each of these narratives about the truth of this broken family. We circle closer and closer to the truth yet at the end we’re still left with some questions. For one thing. the issue of Ingrid’s fate is left open to the reader to interpret. There’s a bigger question too which is whether it is better to live with uncertainty or, like Flora, to seek comprehensive and complete knowledge and risk unhappiness.
The letters, hidden within the pages of books that Gil has collected haphazardly over the years, are a really clever device.
The titles of the books in which they’re hidden often turn out to be an ironic statement on the content of the letter. So we get one letter, hidden within a copy of The Cocktail Party by T. S Eliot, in which Ingrid describes a party in the pavilion. This is no sophisticated drawing room gathering though, it’s a raucous gathering in a wooden building with tin roof and peeling paint. Ingrid’s recollections of the year when Gil was in London and didn’t see his family for months, are found in a copy of Hand Crocheted Creations for the Home by Bernhard Ullman.
Familiarity with the selected books isn’t important; the title alone is enough to illustrate how Claire Fuller chose them to add an extra layer of meaning to Ingrid’s narrative. In fact, in an interview with the Chicago Review of Books, Fuller admitted that she hadn’t read many of these books herself:
Some of them were picked simply because of their titles, because they seemed to fit so nicely with the story, though I hadn’t read them. Especially the books about baking and crocheting–I haven’t read those, and I don’t really intend to. And there were some books that I picked because I really love them and they mean something to me and they were relevant to what was happening in the story and the letters that Ingird was writing.
This is a rather bookish book. We not only have those references to other books at the end of each letter but we have, in Gil, an individual who has collected used books from a young age. His favourites are those that contain doodles and margin notes or personal oddments like napkins and scraps of paper. For him these are a fundamental aspect of the personal and individual relationship between a book and its reader.
As he tells his friend Richard:
Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind.
I’m with Gil in becoming stupidly excited if I buy a second hand copy and find evidence of a prior owner. I don’t know how Gil would interpret the odd items I stuffed into my copy of Swimming Lessons however. No doodles ( I can’t bring myself to write in books) but there was a gift tag (with ribbon attached), a discarded toffee wrapper and a business card for a gardening company: all had clearly been pressed into service when I didn’t have a spare bookmark to hand.
I loved the lesson that Gil, while still a Professor, dishes out to his creative writing students.
You’ve missed the essence of literature and reading. Who gives a fuck about Jackson and her intentions? She’s dead, literally and metaphorically. This book”–you snatched Elizabeth’s copy from her lap and flapped it in the air –“and all books are created by the reader. And if you haven’t realised that and what it means to your work, you know shit about writing and you’re never going to, so you might as well stop now”.
I can think of a few contemporary authors who failed to take on board Gil’s direction and made me feel, when I attempted to read their book that I was considered not “clever” enough to understand their finely crafted prose.
Swimming Lessons is a clever novel that fully engaged my attention as it delved into the complex and messy world of a relationship that goes sour and decisions are taken that have long term effects. I enjoyed it so much I’ve immediately bought her more recent novel Unsettled Ground which won the Costa Novel Award in 2021 and her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days.
Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Footnotes
Claire Fuller studied sculpture at art school, beginning to write fiction only after many years working as a co-director of a marketing agency. Since then she’s wom several awards for her short stories and novels. Her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize; her novel Bitter Orange was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and Unsettled Ground won the Costa Novel Award. She lives with her family in Winchester, England. My copy of Swimming Lessons was published by Fig Tree (an imprint of Penguin) in 2017.