Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller review – in at the deep end

Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was published in 2015 to wide critical acclaim and went on to win the Desmond Elliott prize. A successful first book is always a tricky act to follow, but with Swimming Lessons, Fuller confirms herself as a writer of emotional depth, technical skill and sensitive plotting.

The novel’s arresting prose is evident from the opening line: “Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.” His wife, Ingrid, has been missing for 12 years – presumed drowned – and Gil’s sighting proves to be the catalyst for the return of his two adult daughters, Nan and Flora, to their home in a converted swimming pavilion on a cliff overlooking the sea.

Gil is a writer, the author of a bestselling, notoriously salacious novel. He is also a collector of books, not for the books themselves but for “the handwritten marginalia and doodles that marked the pages, for the forgotten ephemera used as bookmarks” – and Swimming Lessons is a story in which all books contain their secrets. The authorship of Gil’s novel is less straightforward than his readers have been led to believe, while the piles of books that “rose up like sea stacks, their grey pages stratified rock”, contain letters hidden by his missing wife. Ingrid’s letters reveal the history of their marriage, and Fuller’s narrative alternates between the present-day reunion of Gil, Nan and Flora, and the letters Ingrid wrote some 12 years previously.

This is a novel of disappearances, where nothing is quite as it seems, and individuals are conflicted in what they choose to believe. There is Ingrid’s unexplained disappearance when Flora was only 10, and the family’s contrasting responses: Flora is convinced her mother is still alive, while Nan has long since given up hope. And there was, we learn from Ingrid’s letters, a disappearance of Gil’s too, which is teased out through the novel but only finally revealed in a shocking betrayal towards the end. Each of Fuller’s characters is on a quest to find a missing person, a search that becomes as much about the impossibility of fully understanding someone else as actually finding them.

What Fuller evokes beautifully are the complicated dynamics between fathers and daughters, sisters, lovers, friends. Fuller authentically conveys the paradoxical love and frustration between her characters: Nan’s limited patience with Flora’s denial about their mother’s disappearance; Flora’s idealisation of her father; Gil’s creative selfishness, his desire for a family life jarring with his inadequacies in providing what they need. This is a family where everyone is, in some ways, leading a double life; where there is always a conflict between internal and external reality.

While structurally Ingrid’s letters sometimes feel a little forced – there are moments when, tonally, they lack the familiarity of letters and read more like author-written backstory – they nonetheless reveal a compelling portrait of a woman trapped by the confines of marriage and motherhood, as well as the complicated love and rivalry within female friendship.

Swimming Lessons reveals a writer whose craft has been further honed and developed since her debut. Occasionally there are reveals that require a suspension of disbelief too far, but for the most part the plotting is compelling and subtle.

 Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller is published by Fig Tree (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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This article titled “Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller review – in at the deep end” was written by Hannah Beckerman, for The Observer on Sunday 26th February 2017 09.00 UTC

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