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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The Good Guy – Susan Beale

Rating: 3.5 stars

good guy.jpgThe Good Guy is described on its back cover as a ‘slightly gossipy summer read’ and tells the story of a tyre salesman called Ted who, through absolutely no fault of his own, ends up cheating on his wife Abigail with an impressionable young woman named Penny who he – completely by accident – tells that he is a widower raising a young child alone.

The Good Guy is an interesting read, and I spent the whole book trying to understand why I was (unsuccessfully) being apparently strongarmed into seeing Ted as a decent person when from start to finish he lies to both women and berates his wife for not cleaning the house when she is the sole carer for their young child. He seems to feel entitled to his affair, and again and again the narration seems to be pushing us towards seeing him as a genuine “good guy”. Ted was an interesting character, a portrait of inadequate American masculinity, the crushing pressure of expectation, the ability of ordinary people to commit heinous acts of deception, but what he was not ever was a “good guy”. And yeah it’s set in the 1960s in the suburbs, but that doesn’t make much of a difference.

Then I read the author’s note at the back, and it became clear to me that this book was something of a passion project and deeply personal. I certainly felt a little uneasy about my own readiness to judge this story harshly – it felt, as I read it, like a story I had heard a thousand times before. Perhaps because I read this right after Because I was Lonely, another disheartening story in which men are presented as biologically incapable of fidelity.

I can see what Beale has done here. She has written with compassion for all her characters and created a world in which she genuinely sees everyone as well-intentioned but easily misled. What this book did well was portraying the focus on social appearance vs reality, and the way in which people were trapped by these pressures in the sixties.

My reservations with this book were just that I found it impossible to like Ted, and I didn’t feel like the title was meant to be as ironic as it should have been. But this was an interesting read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a vintage aesthetic. And who knows, perhaps many of you won’t judge Ted as harshly as I did. After all, for many people being a “good guy” is in the eye of the beholder.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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