Gil Coleman is a well-known, ageing writer who has just found a letter, loose in a book in a bookshop addressed to him, and at that very moment he thinks he sees his wife Ingrid, who has been missing for 11 years, through the window on the street outside.
This is the beginning of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, her second novel. What follows is the story of Ingrid and Gil’s relationship, the rise and unravelling, told in two parts: the undelivered letters from Ingrid to Gil hidden in books all over Gil’s house that reflect on their relationship, and the present day story of their grown-up daughters, Nan and Flora, who look after Gil when he falls after his sighting of Ingrid.
We are told through Ingrid’s letters written just before she disappeared that the couple met in 1976. Gil is Ingrid’s English and Creative Writing lecturer at university when they start dating and she becomes pregnant and they marry. He loses his job and for much of the book they struggle financially. This is not the only source of stress: fidelity is a tricky concept for Gil and he has numerous affairs throughout their marriage.
Although we know a bestseller is in his future. Flora sees her most recent boyfriend’s interest in her increase at the very beginning of the novel when he finds out that she is Gil’s daughter, Gil Coleman, the writer of ‘A Man of Pleasure’, a book that sees his name hit the headlines, earns him appearances on television, talks at literary festivals and brings much needed food to the table.
Claire Fuller places the reader in a privileged position in the book. In Gil’s lecture he tells his students that: ‘Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important.’ The reader of Swimming Lessons is indeed as crucial as this, as only we know the story in its entirety. We can focus on the fundamentals at the novel’s heart (the complications of family life, clashing personalities, the colourful family history) in complete contrast to Gil who is obsessed with reading the marginalia in books that fill his house. Or, as Ingrid puts it in another confessional letter that lays out her unvoiced thoughts and their family secrets, that these notes are just ‘More things our children mustn’t read’. But we can. We are faced with the central issues, while Gil is studying the scribbles at the side.
Ideas about imagination as a concept are a playful thing in Swimming Lessons. Gil opines: ‘I don’t think it’s good to have an imagination which is more vivid, wilder, than life’ and, later, ‘Reality is better than imagination’ (crushing news, I know). Ingrid meanwhile admits that she finds ‘Reality is so much more conventional than imagination’ and that she has ‘imagined far too many things’. But, if the latter is true, then it throws the validity of her letters into question.
I found Swimming Lessons to be a very enjoyable read, although for me some of the more poetic lines jarred slightly. By the end of the book I was slightly desperate for a different kind of metaphor than those based on both colour and smell: ‘The khaki colour of unwashed hair’ (used twice) and ‘“I’m so pleased you’re here” she said into the cloth of his jacket, breathing in the smell of him – cigarettes the colour of wet bark’, and ‘The place stank of burning, the only smell that was pure black’. But some universal truths sang from the novel. The treatment of women in the 1970s for example, played out during Ingrid’s appointment with the doctor who only seemed to address Gil. The hard-hitting moment Ingrid sees a girl pick up baby Nan ‘in a way that made me feel like I’ve been faking motherhood.’ The pace of the book was pleasing, almost like the waves at sea near their family house, back and forth in time between Ingrid’s letters and an ailing Gil who needs nursing.
I think Swimming Lessons would be a good book for a book club. If you enjoyed Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell I think you’ll like this!
‘Swimming Lessons’ by Claire Fuller is published by Fig Tree (Penguin) on 26th January in Hardback (£14.99).
My copy of ‘Swimming Lessons’ was kindly sent to me (on my request) by the publisher to review.