[Ingrid is a student who fancies her tutor]
One afternoon when I had a free period, I went over to your office. He won’t be in, I told myself, although that morning I’d put on my yellow crocheted dress, the one which never failed to get comments. He’s a rude bastard and he won’t be in, I repeated. But when I walked down the footpath you were hanging out of your office window four floors up, smoking a cigarette. You saw me and smiled, and gave me a kind of salute, which I took to mean come up, so I went through those echoing stairwells and corridors to your office, half terrified, half expectant.
As I lifted my hand to knock on your door, it opened. You stood there, holding the glass jug of your coffee percolator, and immediately I realized from the surprised expression on your face that the wave from the window had been a hello, not an invitation.
I stood in the small space between the sofa and the armchair, breathing you in, tugging at the bottom of my dress and regretting my choice.
commentary: Claire Fuller’s first book, Our Endless Numbered Days, featured on the blog nearly two years ago - I said then it would be interesting to see what she wrote next. This one is very different, and I liked it even more than the first one. It does have some things in common with Days however – both are extremely well-written, and both focus in part on the year 1976: was it a meaningful moment for Claire Fuller…?
Swimming Lessons has a complex structure. It opens more or less now, when two grown-up daughters need to help their father, Gil, who is ill. The girls’ mother, Ingrid, disappeared some years before. Interspersed with the contemporary chapters are letters that Ingrid wrote just before she left (drowned? committed suicide? ran away? – no-one knows), letters that she hid in the books that filled their home. In these she tells the story of her relationship with Gil, starting in 1976.
Fuller is such an accomplished writer – I love the way Flora and Nan are slowly revealed to us via their actions and conversations, and that they have their imperfections and their lack of understanding. The setting is very real and beautifully portrayed, though that’s partly because, although it has another name in the book, I think I recognize the original of the place in the book, and it’s somewhere I know well. (Claire Fuller lives very near me, though we don’t know each other, and it’s not where the book is set.)
I thought the triple time-scheme was annoying. I am always very judgemental about this (triple! why?!) in all books, but will say that it wasn’t too hard to follow. But I did have to work at it to remember where and when we were, and I think that’s asking too much of the reader. And just occasionally there was too much writer-y writing, and pointless descriptions - for example could have done without this stunning perception: ‘Bedrooms always smell of their owners’.
But to counter that, there are wonderful passages like this one:
Flora and I aren’t designed for sleep. Our eyelids are too thin, our bodies too light, to stay weighted down in a bed and our ears too sensitive. We wake at any noise, whether it’s real or imagined…
And the book is very compelling, you really want to know that happened, what the truth is about Gil and Ingrid's relationship, what became of Ingrid.
It's not a spoiler to say that Ingrid and Gil get married and her feminist best friend Louise disapproves:
I wore the yellow crocheted dress to our wedding. Louise however arrived at Caxton Hall registry office on the 5th of October 1976 in a long white dress, high-necked with lace sleeves. ‘Second-hand,’ she said. ‘What do you think?’ She twirled on the pavement. She wore it to annoy you and had no idea how much it hurt me.The smaller picture above probably shows what the yellow dress was like, but I preferred the blonde laughing woman, she is from 2015 but I hope might represent Ingrid’s spirit, and at least some happiness.
The letters hidden in the books are a major feature, and there is much discussion of what people do to their books, how they treat them and make them their own. I received a review copy of Swimming Lessons, and was a little spooked and then delighted when a random, unidentified photograph, something old and black and white, fell out of it… Nice one.