Back in 2015, Claire Fuller’s much acclaimed Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list. I have a track record of disappointment with second novels, either expecting too much on my part or perhaps just one excellent novel in them on the author’s. Nothing wrong with that, of course: I don’t even have a mediocre one in me. Fuller’s new book, however, is very far from a disappointment: expectations were not only met but exceeded. Swimming Lessons is the story of a mother who disappears, leaving her family and her philandering husband with a paper trail of letters hidden among his many books.
Ingrid and Louise are studying English in ‘70s London, determined not to replicate their mothers’ lives. No marriage, children and drudgery for them: they plan to travel the world, to achieve. Gil Coleman teaches Ingrid creative writing. He’s a colourful figure with a novel or two under his belt, happily seducing his students but with his sights set on marriage and six children. Ingrid thinks their affair will be a mere summer fling but finds herself pregnant and installed in Gil’s seaside home while Louise looks on disparagingly, uncomprehending at what Ingrid has allowed to happen to her. When Nan is born, Ingrid feels nothing. While she frets about how they’re going to live now that Gil has left the university in disgrace, he takes himself off to his writing room, hard at work or so she thinks. Five years later, after a great deal of heartache, a second daughter is born. Then, when Nan is fourteen and Flora not yet nine, Ingrid disappears. Decades later, Gil is staring out of his local bookshop window, convinced he’s seen Ingrid and in his desperate efforts to pursue her, falls badly. Nan and Flora come home to look after him, one resigned to what’s happened and what will happen, the other still hopeful that all her questions will be answered and her dearest wish fulfilled.
From Gil’s dramatic sighting of Ingrid, Fuller draws you into her novel alternating present day events with Ingrid’s story written in letters tucked into appropriate books. It’s a structure which works beautifully, setting up a nice thread of suspense as we ask ourselves what has happened to Ingrid. Fuller perceptively explores the complexities of motherhood, marriage and love, overarching it all with the question – would you rather know and accept the worst, as Nan has long resigned herself to do, or carry the bright hope of not knowing that Flora and Gil have fostered since Ingrid’s disappearance. It’s an engrossing story, beautifully expressed. Fuller’s writing is quite cinematic at times – vivid snapshots which reminded me of her flash fiction, a weekly pleasure. The little bibliographical note at the end of each of Ingrid’s letters is a treat for the anoraks among us, and I loved Gil’s annoyed response about first editions: ‘Forget that first-edition, signed-by-the-author nonsense. Fiction is about readers’. Quite so.