Rating: 5 stars
I was hooked from the start by the tremendous opening of Fuller’s novel:
“Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.”
Within the four pages of the book’s prologue we learn that “Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly”. In his pursuit of Ingrid from the bookshop, Gil falls from the promenade onto the beach below. “It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be…” And here we have all the leading players in the present-day story.
Organised, neat and tidy, Nan, a 27-year-old midwife, and her 22-year-old artist sister, Flora, whose life is perpetually chaotic and shambolic, go to take care of their father, followed by Flora’s new boyfriend, Richard, a bookseller. Gil is clearly elderly and ill (quite apart from his fall), a writer who’s devoted to second-hand books, with a preference for any which have been written or drawn in, or which contain old cards or letters. His house, called The Swimming Pavilion, is overflowing with such books, heaped everywhere, and it’s apparent that has he’s recently been searching for something, with every surface now heaped with books. And within days of meeting Richard, Gil asks him to burn all his books on his, Gil’s, death, which we increasingly realise is imminent. We also realise that Gil knows that over the weeks before her disappearance from their lives, Ingrid left him dozens of letters about their relationship and life together, all hidden within appropriate books.
Bit by bit we learn their history through reading these previously unread and hidden letters, which Swimming Lessons juxtaposes with developments in the lives of Gil, Nan and Flora. They are related in parallel tracks; the 1992 series of letters recount Ingrid and Gil’s life from the time of their meeting in 1976, when he is her university teacher and already a famous novelist, and the 2004 lives of those she has left behind – not just her family but also close friends Jonathan and Louise.
Fuller deals beautifully with the stresses felt by young Ingrid, becoming a wife and mother while still at university, and giving up all her hopes and young dreams to live with her new family in rural Dorset in The Swimming Pavilion. She has a constant struggle to make ends meet, living off the occasional sale of one of Gil’s short stories or small royalty cheques from his published novel. She also struggles to feel she is doing anything right in how she looks after or loves her children, and when a prematurely born son dies she cannot come to terms with the loss. Gil is a wayward flirt whose eye is constantly roving, as indeed at times is he himself, with lengthy absences from the family’s home. Ingrid’s pain is real, and by the time we read the last of her letters we are sure that she suffered more than she could bear. We also understand that the elderly Gil is suffering terribly now, having spent nearly 12 years wondering what has become of her, and now having found some of the letters she wrote to him.
Fuller is an observant writer, capturing her characters’ mannerisms and gestures with apparent effortlessness but with beautiful attention to tiny details, such as how Flora eats her food or puts on her clothes; we see too Nan’s impatience, Gil’s selfishness, Richard’s bewilderment, Jonathan’s blundering attempts to help. In exploring the psychology of relationships gone sour or in their early stages of developing, Fuller ensures that the mystery continues up until the very last page. Swimming Lessons is a subtle and compelling tale of family tragedy, memories only half-understood, and stories better kept silent.
Reviewed by Daisy