Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

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.”

swimming lessons.jpgWithin 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.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

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This is the final offering from the wonderful novelist and poet, Helen Dunmore, who died last June. And what a fine last novel it is.

I was gripped right from the outset when the author explains what led her into wanting to find out more about one of the characters, Julia Elizabeth Fawkes; after seeing her grave in a Bristol cemetery, with the inspiring headstone, bearing the words “Her words remain our Inheritance”, Dunmore first wanted to find out more about her and then imagined the world she inhabited.

Julia is central to the novel, but it is her daughter, Lizzie, whose moves we follow intensely, taking us with her on a dangerous journey with her husband John Diner Tredevant. Diner, as he’s known, is a property developer in Bristol in 1792, just as the French Revolution is coming to a head, with disastrous consequences for the Bristol property market, while Lizzie, his young wife, comes from a revolutionary background, and at first supports the changes in France. Lizzie is torn between her feelings of duty and loyalty, both to her husband and to her mother and stepfather Augustus. When Julia dies after giving birth to Lizzie’s half-brother Thomas, Lizzie feels compelled to take care of him, despite her knowledge that Diner strongly disagrees with her. Over the months that follow, matters come to a head for Lizzie and her loved ones, and she finally learns more about Diner and his first wife, who was French, and whom he’s told her has died in France.

As ever, Dunmore creates fully credible characters, from Lizzie and Diner to their servant girl Philo, Julia and Augustus, their servant and companion Hannah, and Augustus’s friend Caroline Farquhar, who has plans of her own for baby Thomas. The background of the French Revolution threatens and rumbles, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes quietly in the background, making lives which are unstable already even more so. As winter approaches and settles, life becomes more and more arduous for Lizzie.

The descriptions of life in Bristol in 1792 are so vivid I really felt as if Dunmore had been there and experienced the cold hard winter days herself, and understood exactly how tough life had been for Lizzie, isolated in her brand new house on a street which Diner has been developing at great personal cost, both emotional and monetary. His schemes fail. In the wake of the Revolution, workers are laid off and not replaced, and his grand plan cannot be completed. His own house, built to be a show home of sorts, has its furniture removed.

Dunmore was noted for undertaking intense research, absorbing it and then using it to breathe life into every tiny detail in her novels. In The Siege she brought to life the appalling war-time years in Leningrad when hundreds of thousands of people were trapped within the city for long months. In Birdcage Walk, it’s the dual background of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, with its creation of new levels of wealth and poverty, which comes to life in the pages. Diner’s increasingly menacing presence and Lizzie’s bravery are compelling forces, working together and against each other by turns. And we feel Julia’s presence through Lizzie long after Julia has died.

I shall miss Helen Dunmore’s piercing intelligence and humanity, and her ability to weave life and magic into imagined people in real situations, and real people in imagined situations. For now, it’s time to turn back to her earlier works, starting with Zennor in Darkness, and reread them, savouring each in turn.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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What She Never Told Me – Kate McQuaile

Rating: 5 stars

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Louise Redmond is back in Ireland, where she was born and grew up until her mother, Marjorie Redmond, persuaded her to go to England to study music. She’s no brothers or sisters and she’s never known her father: all her mother’s told her about him is that he was an Englishman named David Prescott, who left Ireland before Louise was born. Her much-loved stepfather, Dermot, has already died, and now the death of her mother after a very short illness leaves poor Louise with many unanswered questions, trying to sort out who she really is and what to do with her life.

And she’s doubly bereft: Sandy, her husband of ten years, has left her. As Louise tries to make sense of everything, she’s haunted by shadows of memories from when she was a tiny child, memories she finds unsettling and threatening. She seeks help from her mother’s older brother, whom she barely knows, and accidentally stumbles upon what may well be the key to her life. But there are lots of twists and turns on the way, before she eventually discovers the truth about her parents and her family, and is able at last to achieve a greater peace with herself and come out of her mother’s shadow and into the light.

I read this over the course of two long train journeys, and was completely gripped. Kate McQuaile has created a rich variety of characters, who weave their through the complexities of the plot. I loved the descriptions of Louise’s journeys through different parts of Ireland, from the rich suburbs of Dublin to rural Kerry to find the family she never knew she had. She has the love and support of her oldest friend, Ursula, and her stepsister, Angela, both of whom are unfailingly kind and generous, but it’s a difficult journey which Louise is on and many truths and lies have to be uncovered along the way, both from other people to her and also from her to other people.

Should people ever tell lies or hide the truth in order to be kinder? These are tricky matters and many of the characters have got it wrong at times; sometimes their motives have been far less than kind, too, and more to do with self preservation. In the end even Louise has some truths which she understands are best not told, not just to protect herself but to be kind to other people. But finally she has achieved a greater peace than she could have dared to dream of less than a year before.

A terrific first novel – I strongly recommend it.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Good Neighbour – Beth Miller

good neighbourA huge vote of thanks to Beth Miller’s publishers, Ebury Press, for the timely arrival of this review copy. I’m struggling with slipped discs and spent 48 hours unable to do much except drink tea and read. And what better, more gripping read could I have had than Beth Miller’s second novel, The Good Neighbour.

It’s a compelling, well-written novel about a couple – Minette and Abe – who have a 9 month old baby – Tilly – and have been living with neighbours who constantly complain about the smallest noise emanating from them, making their lives unbearable. So their relief when new neighbours move in and are friendly is enormous. Her new neighbours are Cath and her two children, Davey (8) and Lola (4). They are a complicated family – Davey is in a wheelchair, suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, while little Lola has multiple allergies, Cath explains. Andy, her husband, is working away as a driver, and they miss him and talk frequently on Skype.

Minette gets rapidly drawn into Cath’s world, joining her in training for a fundraising triathlon, pleased to have a change from the routine of looking after the baby while her husband is at work. And Minette is also drawn into much closer relationships with other neighbours, including handsome Liam. The readers soon realise that all is not well with Cath’s family – she is extremely keen to extract information about everyone else but very good at withholding information about herself and her family. And a series of events leads Minette to get enmeshed in the web of deceit which Cath has drawn around them. I don’t really want to give away more detail about the plot because it’s such a great tale, full of twists and turns, which keeps us in suspense throughout. It’s a terrific read which had me gripped.

It was all too easy to believe in Minette’s boredom and annoyance at her endless walks to the toyshop or the park, trying to keep little Tilly quiet (and to retain her own sanity), wondering whether to go back to her job or to give it up to become a permanent stay-at-home mother. It’s a dilemma which so many people face, and for Minette the first months have been even more difficult because of her constant worry about her neighbours complaining.

Cath is a wonderful creation – we hear her thoughts and her worries, her feelings of anxiety, and soon we realise that something is not right, and that she is not exactly what her new neighbours think she is. She covers her tracks, even to herself, really well, but at times things happen, inevitably, which are beyond her control and her complicated chains of stories begin to snap.

Beth Miller has again come up with a book which left me wanting more. There are lots of unanswered questions left at the end – could there be a sequel? I really hope so, as I’d love to hear what happens next to so many of these entirely believable characters.

Rating: 5 stars

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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