Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller – A New Favourite This Year
28th March, 2017
Swimming Lessons is the dissection of a marriage through a series of letters.
Novels are unexplainable creatures, they sometimes gain your admiration because of the way the story develops and sometimes they make you fall in love with the character sketches. Then there are other novels that attract you by the pace of storytelling. When I finished Swimming Lessons, I was extremely pleased to note that Claire Fuller has succeeded in all the three aspects.
The novel captures your attention from the first pages. Gil, a novelist, happens to see his wife Ingrid, who disappeared in a drowning incident many years ago. He follows her, has a fall and ends up in a hospital. His two daughters, Nanette and Flora, take charge of the house and his health. Thereon we see a story that reveals the intricacies in a marriage and the secrets that are revealed in a series of letters.
The novel has a clever structure and it alternates between the past and the present; the past through the letters Ingrid leaves for her husband and the present mostly through the younger daughter, Flora’s viewpoint. It was heartwarming to read how well Ingrid knew her children – that Nanette would take up a mother-role in the household and Flora would be Daddy’s darling. At the same time it is sad because what she predicted came true and not what she hoped for.
This writing is masterful and strikes the right chords. I found myself in tears at several instances in the book. At other times I read with a lump in my throat. The impact of the novel on the reader is commendable and so is the portrayal of the psychological dilemmas faced by the characters in the novel. Sometimes we read about something in the past, though the letters, and see the direct implication of the same in the present lives of the characters. At other times we read the present scenario first and later connect the dots when we read about what caused it to happen.
The novel is sprinkled with symbolisms like flying fish and also Norwegian beliefs that lend an eerie and supernatural feel to the whole story. The book is a treat to bibliophiles as the letters that Ingrid hides are for Gil are inside the books in his personal library and this correspondence forms the crux of the novel. Gil has an enviable library collection and a thing for used books, doodles in margins and other forgotten paraphernalia between the covers. Ingrid has a sense of humour even in her turbulent emotional state – she makes a sarcastic commentary when she maps the major subject of each letter to the book in which it is hidden. For example, Gil’s spendthrift attitude is hidden in Martin Amis’ Money.
I love the uncertainties the story possesses. We don’t know if Gil actually read all the letters. It is pretty evident he did. But what if he missed one? Maybe a crucial letter? What if someone had borrowed a book and found a letter? The possibilities are endless even though there is no direct implication of the same in the book. I love how Fuller gives the reader a partial command over the story to form notions and whip up theories in the head. Moreover, we do not know if Ingrid committed suicide or had a drowning accident or abandoned her family. Each chapter made me arrive at a different conclusion and I love how this added more suspense to the story. Further interesting were the view points of the different people associated with Ingrid before her disappearance and how each believed in a different version of what might have happened.
Final Verdict :
I adored the novel. It has an engaging and suspenseful plot, excellent writing, occasional symbolisms and detailed character sketches, all the ingredients that make up a phenomenal book. Fuller dissects a marriage, the guilt and the grief of it and its effect on the different members of the family. I recently talked about the book on a list of Twelve Books that Talk About Marriage.
Swimming Lessons made me grieve for Ingrid; it made me wish for a way to merge my world with hers to help her in any small way I could. The book ends on a note of uncertainty with a hint of positive vibe and I assure you this was one of the most satisfying reads for me this year. Highly recommended.
Title : Swimming Lessons
Author : Claire Fuller
Publisher : Fig Tree (Penguin UK)
Published : 2016
Language : English
Pages : 295
Rating : 5/5
Much thanks to the author and Fig Tree Books (Penguin UK) for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
Have you read Swimming Lessons yet?