Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Swimming Lessons begins with writer Gil Coleman seeing his wife Ingrid through a bookshop window - which would be nothing to cause alarm if his wife were not presumed to have drowned in a swimming accident 12 years previously. The effects of this shock put Gil in hospital and then bring his daughters, Nan and Flora, to his increasingly dilapidated home to look after him. Sensible, capable Nan insists that their father's declining health has caused him to see things that aren't there, while art student Flora isn't so sure. 

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Swimming Lessons intersperses the present-day narrative, primarily from Flora's point of view, with letters to Gil written by Ingrid and hidden in his vast collection of books - books which he buys not for their own sake but for the notes, inscriptions and doodles left by other readers. The letters tell the story of the couple's marriage, a story Nan can only guess at and of which Flora is entirely ignorant. It begins in 1976 with Norwegian student Ingrid falling in love with her tutor, the much older Gil, and becoming pregnant almost immediately during a summer of drunken parties at the old swimming pavilion Gil has inherited from his parents. Each letter forms another piece in the jigsaw, and the picture it reveals becomes increasingly dark as Gil's true character is gradually exposed through stories within stories.

For all his supposedly bohemian ways, Gil is seemingly intent on trapping Ingrid into the traditional role of housewife and mother, staying at home during his long absences, bearing his children, tolerating his infidelities. Ingrid's creativity, her independence and even her pride are suppressed until her only pleasure comes from her daily open-water swim. The sea becomes symbolic of freedom and escape, so perhaps its unsurprising that Gil tries to stop Ingrid from swimming when he decides it must be harming her ability to bear him another child (specifically a son, the absence of boys in the Coleman family being keenly felt by both parents).

Swimming Lessons is an exceptionally well-written novel, full of beautifully observed and perfectly placed details, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as Fuller's previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days (which also centres around a deeply unpleasant father and a daughter of a troubled, toxic marriage). This was simply because I found Gil so unpleasant right from his first appearance that the contents of Ingrid's letters didn't always feel as revelatory as I wanted them to be. 

Swimming Lessons is a novel of secrets, loss, miscommunication and unsettling, off-kilter moments that surely have a symbolic significance - Flora's boyfriend Richard has anatomical diagrams of his organs and intestines drawn all over his torso; a shower of fish rains down on a causeway during a storm; the dying Gil demands to be dressed in his wife's old evening gown - which make it pleasingly unsettling. There's also a strong sense of place, and the characters feel very real, even those on the periphery of the story. Nan and Flora are entirely convincing products of Gil and Ingrid's marriage, with capable Nan stepping up to the role of parent - to Gil as well as Flora - when Ingrid disappears and Flora maintaining a sense of naive denial which would be irritating were it not tempered with a very real strength of hope.

There were times when sticking with the (to me, at least) inevitable trajectory of Ingrid's relationship with Gil was something of a challenge, simply because I found Ingrid's plight so utterly frustrating and Gil so entirely without charm - but I'm very glad I kept reading as this is a brilliantly constructed family drama with a conclusion that is ultimately fulfilling.

Thank you to Claire Fuller and the publicity team at Penguin Books for kindly sending me a proof copy of Swimming Lessons to review.