“Swimming Lessons” opens with an eerie scene in which a man follows the ghost of his lost wife to the sea. Is she real or a spectre of his imagination? This doesn’t develop into a gothic tale, but rather it’s the story of a family split apart through betrayal and secrets which intelligently and movingly portrays the psychological dilemmas of both the missing woman at the book’s centre and the family she left behind. Fuller does this through a structure which alternates between the stories of two adult daughters who care for their ailing elderly father Gil and the letters their lost mother Ingrid wrote before her disappearance. These letters she tucked into several books buried within the cluttered personal library that Gil has haphazardly amassed over the years. It’s a process of discovery which creatively shows the different perspectives of a broken family.
Having read Fuller’s first novel “Our Endless Numbered Days” it’s interesting to see how she structured both these books somewhat similarly, but the effect is quite different. Chapters alternate between an approximate present and a time some years previously to build a more rounded viewpoint on the startling personal choices some of her characters make. This is an interesting way of portraying time because information is meted out for the reader to show how the past directly impacts upon the present. In the case of this new novel, at the beginning Gil discovers another letter which Ingrid hid away for him. After the prologue we see him in his present condition largely from the perspective of his adoring younger daughter Flora. But we’re aware while reading Ingrid’s letters in between each chapter what effect these must have had upon Gil’s troubled conscience. It gives a more artful and nuanced viewpoint on a case where a wife and mother vanishes from her family.
At the heart of this novel is an enquiry into the nature of truth. It poses the question of whether it is “better to live without knowing because then you could always live with hope.” The story dramatically plays out this philosophical inquiry through Ingrid’s disappearance. She might have drowned in the sea as she frequently loved swimming alone in the early morning. Or she might have abandoned her family. The family and friends she left behind have different perspectives on this question and they reach varying conclusions during the course of this emotionally-engaging story. So much about our relationships and the respective fates of people who we’ve loved in life is ultimately unknowable. The trajectory of this novel often touches upon very tender feelings so I became totally swept up in the dilemmas of the highly engaging characters. The parallel stories of Ingrid’s development and the family who are still dealing with her loss many years later build to a dramatic conclusion.
Fuller has a great talent for giving a strong visceral understanding of her characters’ complex lives and motivations through small suggestions made in dialogue and action. Older daughter Nanette is highly capable, responsible and has a romantic crush on Viv, owner of a local bookshop. Whereas younger daughter Flora is impulsive, unwieldy and dismissive towards the man that she’s been recently sleeping with when he clearly adores her. In the case of Ingrid, we get her perspective only in the second person through the letters she’s written to her husband Gil. The complexity of her character slowly unfolds as she makes shocking revelations that reveal her complicated layers of grief and the precariousness of her situation. This gives a highly original and striking look at motherhood.
This novel will be especially pleasurable for any bibliophiles because of the portrayal of Gil’s considerable personal book collection. He’s not so much concerned with the content of these books as what previous readers have left within them: notes in the margins, doodles or paraphernalia tucked between the pages. I was reminded of Thomas Maloney’s debut novel “The Sacred Combe” where a man uncovers a family’s history through the things he finds hidden amidst the pages of their enormous library. This process of discovery not only builds a sense of reading as a communal activity but how every book is newly created through the process of reading – as a dialogue between author and reader. The books which Ingrid chooses to hide her letters within often make a wry commentary upon their content. For instance, an account of a chaotic gathering Gil brings Ingrid to is found in T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” and a recollection about Gil’s frivolous spending is found in Martin Amis’ “Money”. It’s not necessary to be familiar with these various books to understand the witty way which Ingrid adds extra meaning to her letters through the choices of books she hides them within.
“Swimming Lessons” is a richly engaging and clever novel that gives an enlightening and fresh perspective on family life. Fuller movingly portrays the difficult decisions a mother must make and the complicated long-term effects of grief and guilt.