The ocean’s a zone where you can be completely free; or vanish utterly. It’s against this elemental force that Claire Fuller has set her powerful second novel. Like all the best stories, Swimming Lessons has secrets hidden in every nook. It hinges on a series of letters that could expose a family’s unspoken tragedy. But these letters are hidden between the pages of a handful of books, that are themselves buried under an ocean of second-hand print that congests the shelves and bedrooms and hallways of an ageing novelist’s seaside bungalow. Since the disappearance of his wife Ingrid, Gil Coleman’s life has been overrun by these books, which he buys not for their stories, but for the crude marginalia drawn in them by former owners.
The mystery of Ingrid’s vanishing is the fault-line her survivors edge around. The inciting incident of this book comes when, years after Ingrid’s disappearance, Gil starts uncovering fragments of her last confession, hidden between the pages of his books. So starts his race to uncover all the letters before his own mortality defeats him.
The truth is slowly, though only ever partially, unravelled by Ingrid's two very different daughters: wayward Flora; dependable Nan. The truthfulness of these sisters’ jousting, the way they simultaneously resent and depend upon the roles assigned to them within their damaged family, is the emotional anchor of this book. But the beautiful monster that both story and family revolve around is Gil. As Ingrid’s tale unfolds through her letters, we watch her marry Gil for the freedoms he seems to offer; then we see this choice lead to the slow erosion of her identity. Because Gil’s writing talents, and his affections, are purely vampiric. His success, when it comes, is gained by sucking life – and story – out of Ingrid. This is what makes this very intimate novel universal: we all recognise the plight of a woman swallowed by male ego.
Seaside towns are edge places; and Fuller’s rich descriptive writing clearly evokes that familiar, shabby, very British landscape, where salt and damp continually threaten to invade and erode all things. Just as this subtle, painful story gnaws at the reader from the very start. Anyone who loved Claire’ debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, as much as I did, will fall upon this book. They won’t be disappointed.