What struck me most immediately about Claire Fuller’s second novel was its keen sense of place. Swimming Lessons is set in Dorset on an island that can only be reached by ferry. The water haunts these characters like a physical manifestation of memory. The landscape, like the story itself, turns inviting, then forbidding, and is often both at once.
The present of the novel is predominately carried by Flora, the daughter of Ingrid, a woman who vanished, and Gil, a once famous novelist. Ingrid was presumed drowned when Flora and her sister Nan were children, but Flora, like her father, is determined to preserve her sense of uncertainty, to exist in the space of not knowing. When Gil thinks he sees his wife walking in town, Flora rushes home and Fuller begins an unflinching examination of the damage loss has wrought upon the family.
But, as we see this family in the present, we also experience them in the past through letters Ingrid left behind in her husband’s books. Swimming Lessons is a book that loves books. It is particularly concerned with the reading and telling of stories. As Gil tells his daughters:
Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind.
Gil is a lifelong student of marginalia and so his wife’s decision to leave her letters behind in his books is an invitation to study the way she read the life they made together. Ingrid’s letters themselves become the true heart of this novel. Through them we gain insight into her joys and despairs, and her increasing frustration at the shape that her life takes around her. These are wonderful letters in the tradition of female anger that we find in novels from Jane Eyre to The Woman Upstairs. In reading these letters, we are witnesses and co-conspirators, but we also find ourselves culpable.
Swimming Lessons is not an easy book or a light read. Fuller is an expert at plumbing the psychological unease of familial dysfunction. She is also extremely adept at pacing and plotting. As I read, even when I put the book down, it kept turning, restless, in my mind.
Though I wish it had held back some of the melodrama it seemed to descend into by the end and, instead, maintained the subtlety it held at its beginning, the book is a must-read, not only for its craft but also for our times. It’s a reminder of the ways women’s voices are lost, of the ways in which we lose them ourselves, and of the devastation those losses can render.