by Claire Fuller
published by Fig Tree/Penguin, 2017
The Sunday Times described a ‘singing simplicity’ in Claire Fuller’s first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. This holds true for her second novel, Swimming lessons where it evokes the landscape of the sea that permeates this very accomplished and fine literary mystery: you smell the seaweed, you feel the pebbles on the beach and you experience the shock of the cold sea itself.
Gil, a successful but ageing writer, surrounded by piles of books he has collected, lives in a beautiful but rundown house by the sea, looked after by his older daughter, Nan. When he catches sight of Ingrid, his wife who has been missing, presumed dead for 12 years, his family gather round to support him. His younger daughter, Flora, who dotes on him, is determined to track down their mother – she has always felt a certain responsibility as she was the last person to see Ingrid before she disappeared from the beach.
The novel is plotted with two, alternating timelines: in the present day Flora tries to find out the truth about her father’s writing career, his complex relationships and what has happened to her mother. While in1992 her mother, Ingrid, writes letters to Gil telling the history of their marriage from her own point of view – from innocent, idealistic student, to disappointed, middle-aged mother. She hides each letter in one of his many books with the proviso that only he is to read them. Flora has no idea that the letters exist. In both stories swimming in the sea is a major theme: for Ingrid it is therapy, an escape from domesticity, and from a marriage that has not been what she expected; for Flora swimming is a way of healing and for her to be close to her mother.
Clare Fuller skilfully interweaves the strands to form a very satisfying novel that leaves the reader guessing right up to the end. Swimming lessons is a dissection of domestic relationships, sibling rivalry and friendships; it examines the long-lasting impact that mistakes and deceptions have on a family and friends. This novel is deftly plotted, beautifully written, moving, complex and intriguing. A book, like the sea, to immerse yourself in.
Claire Fuller has a first degree in sculpture which is evident in the fine detail she gives to physical descriptions of the natural world. She began writing when she was forty and has a Masters in Creative and Critical writing. Her debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days won the Desmond Elliot Prize for debut fiction in 2015, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick for Spring 2016 as well as being shortlisted for other major prizes.
Claire Fuller blogs on https://clairefuller.co.uk