Tag Archives: Swimming Lessons

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller: A nice slice of British gothic

Cover imageBitter Orange is Claire Fuller’s third novel and it’s the third I’ve reviewed here. Our Endless Numbered Days made it on to my books of the year list in 2015 and I included Swimming Lessons on my (then) Baileys prize wish list last year. I’m something of a fan, as you can tell, so expectations were a tad high for her new one but I’m glad to report that Fuller has outdone herself. Set largely during the summer of 1969, Bitter Orange tells the story of three people thrown together by circumstance, two of whom have been commissioned to write a report on a dilapidated, abandoned English country mansion. As the summer wears on, an intimate friendship develops but who is telling the truth and who is not?

Fran lies on her deathbed recalling her summer at Lyntons twenty years ago. In 1969, just a few months after the domineering mother she had cared for most of her life had died, Fran was commissioned to survey the garden at Lyntons for its American owner. From her bare attic bedroom she watches two people caught up in disagreement: Peter whose job is to survey the house’s interior and his partner Cara, vividly alive and apparently Italian, or so Fran thinks. Fran barely sees either of these two for days until she’s invited to dinner by Cara, arriving trussed up in her mother’s formal wear to find Cara and Peter in déshabillé, no signs of dinner in preparation. Lonely, socially awkward and naïve, Fran assumes these two to be deeply in love but as she’s pulled into their orbit, listening to Cara’s story of how they got together then finding herself Peter’s confidante about Cara’s instability, Fran begins to wonder what the state of their relationship really is and increasingly drawn to Peter. Slowly but surely tensions rise.

Fuller sets her readers up for an absorbing but suspenseful read, throwing up questions at every turn while spilling clues and foreshadowing the future. Fran is a satisfying narrator, hinting at unreliability by telling us that her illness has destroyed her memory but that the events of 1969 are clear and vivid to her. She’s an expertly drawn character: a self-proclaimed voyeur, an outsider ripe for the intimate seduction of friendship that Cara seems to offer. Fuller treats us to a luxuriously long reveal which suits the novel’s vividly evoked sultry heat well, delivering a satisfying climax at its end. I would have enjoyed Bitter Orange whatever the weather but it turned out to be the perfect read for the early days of July when the UK was in the grips of a heat wave which looks set to make a reappearance.

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part One

Cover imageMuch jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-ageCover image novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.

Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of  1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.

I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve Cover imagelearned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.

That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

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

Cover imageBack 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.

Books to Look Out for January in 2017: Part One

Cover imageFor those of you fed up with picking over the bones of 2016, I’m delighted to say that 2017 is starting with a literary bang. So many enticing books out in January that this will be a two-post preview, something not warranted for several months. My first choice – the subject of a good deal of pre-publication brouhaha for months – wanders about the globe but, according to the publishers, tells ‘the very story of America’. Like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, one of 2016’s much-praised titles, the theme of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is slavery. In what sounds like a very ambitious debut, Gyasi’s novel follows the fortunes of two sisters – one sold into slavery, the other a slave-trader’s wife – taking her readers across three continents and seven generations. Weary comments about hype aside, this does sound well worth a read.

Nadeem Aslam can always be relied upon to deliver a novel to get your teeth into and The Golden Legend sounds like no exception. When Nargis loses her husband – caught in cross-fire and shot by an American – she comes under increasing pressure from the military to pardon his killer. In a city riven with fear at the broadcasting of intimate secrets from its mosques, Nargis is already terrified that her own past will be revealed. In ‘his characteristically luminous prose, Nadeem Aslam reflects Pakistan’s past and present in a single mirror – a story of corruption, resilience, and the hope that only love and the human spirit can offer’ say the publishers. Like Kamila Shamsie, Aslam has a knack for the kind of vivid storytelling that helps enlighten Westerners like me about this part of the world.cover image

This one’s here partly because I can’t resist novels set in places I’ve visited on holiday. Set in the seventeenth century with the Western world on the brink of the Enlightenment, Meelis Friedenthal’s The Willow King follows a Dutch melancholic student who arrives in the famous Estonian university town of Tartu with a parrot in tow. Laurentius has been drawn to Tartu in the hope of a scientific explanation for his unhappiness but finds himself attracted back into the world of superstition and magic familiar from his childhood. Holiday nostalgia aside, it sounds intriguing and it’s published by Pushkin Press who seem to have a particularly sharp editorial eye.

Laurentius’ childhood home doesn’t sound a million miles away – literally and metaphorically – from Wiola’s in Wioletta Greg’s debut Swallowing Mercury. Wiola lives in a small village with her taxidermist father, seamstress mother and a black cat. Without having read it, I suspect the publisher’s slightly opaque blurb will be more useful than any summary I can come up with: ‘Wiola lives in a Poland that is both very recent and lost in time. Swallowing Mercury is about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days. In vivid prose filled with texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s. From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.’ Sounds a little fey, I know, but engaging enough to warrant further investigation for me, and Greg’s a poet which augurs well for her writing.swimming-lessons

No doubts about my last choice. Claire Fuller’s prize-winning debut Our Endless Numbered Days was a joy so hopes for Swimming Lessons are understandably high. Gil Coleman’s wife has been missing for twelve years when he thinks he sees her standing on a pavement. Summoned home, his two children set about trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance and whether their father has been entirely truthful with them. Fingers crossed for more absorbing story-telling from Ms Fuller. Beautiful jacket, too.

That’s it for the first January post. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. Part two, which will not set foot outside the USA, to follow very shortly…