Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Knowing the worst or hoping for the best?

Cover image 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.

15 thoughts on “Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Knowing the worst or hoping for the best?”

  1. I’ve been saving one of my book tokens for this one. Was hoping it was going to be worth it, although I suspected it was a fairly safe bet.

    1. I’m always a little nervous when I’ve enjoyed a debut as much as I did Our Endless Numbered days but this one’s even better, I think. It would be book tokens well spent!

  2. I’m almost finished this one and agree, it’s fantastic. I think it’s even better than Endless Numbered Days – the story is more complex but never once feels contrived. Plenty of surprises but not melodramatic.

    I didn’t love the back-and-forth structure to begin, worrying that the predictability of the format would be irritating by the end but the wonderfully clever book references at the end of each chapter make up for any minor faults.

    1. Glad to hear that you’re enjoying it as much as I did, Kate. The structure works well, doesn’t it, and I loved those book references often so cleverly tied in to the point the story has reached.

    1. You’re welcome. I’m sure you’ll like this if you enjoyed Our Endless Numbered Days. I think it’s a more mature piece of work.

  3. I haven’t read any of her books yet, but this one sounds very intriguing. I also hadn’t realized she writes flash fiction. Maybe I will start with those stories and work my way up to her longer books. Thanks for the link!

    1. You’re welcome, Melissa. Her flash fiction is what attracted me to Fuller’s writing. I like the way she uses a photograph as the starting point for her stories. I think she may be taking a little time off from it at the moment but it’s usually a weekly treat.

    1. I did, but I had an inkling – did you? Me, too. This one’s very different from Our Endless Numbered Days.

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