Friday, 3 February 2017

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

 
published 2017
 
 
 
Swimming Lessons 2
 
[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 toSwimming Lessons 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.


















13 comments:

  1. Hmm....triple time lines? I'm not sure about that, myself, Moira. And even double time lines can be confusing if they're not done well. Still, I do like that look at life in the '70s, and the fresh writing style. Glad to know you enjoyed this.

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    1. I do get annoyed by too-complex timelines, but she does a good job on the whole. And the 70s details are great...

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  2. It does sound well worth reading. Crocheted dresses! Yes, I am old enough to remember those! I am just trying to remember if I had one.

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    1. Yes they were a real Thing. I certainly never had one. Do you remember stories of people turning crocheted tablecloths into dresses? Not sure that really happened but it was a funny idea. You took a circular one, cut out a hole in the middle, then sliced up some radii, and sewed them up for sleeves and side seams. (It is sounding even more unlikely as I write it!)

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  3. I added this to my Amazon list. I'm ashamed to admit, but I owned a turquoise blue crocheted dress way back when.

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    1. It's an enjoyable book, and anyone who actually had a crocheted dress would certainly enjoy it!

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  4. I love the top dress, I must confess! I actually really want to read this one now - if I can get my head around the triple timeline, obviously! Not seen many reviews of this, so I wasn't sure if I'd like it. But you make it sound intriguing.

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    1. Intriguing is a good word for it. And I absolutely love the top photo - the dress, the look, her laughing, her hair and lipstick...

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  5. Sounds complicated but interested. I love the crocheted yellow dress. I have not been thin enough to wear something like that since I was a teenager but still, it is very lovely.

    I read a book set in 1976 in January, the main character was a Chinese-American policeman working in New York's Chinatown, a Vietnam vet. Even though I was in my twenties then, I don't remember that much specifically, personally about the Vietnam war. Very strange.

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    1. Memory is an unpredictable thing...
      I don't think I would ever have felt comfortable in a crocheted dress but I did admire those who could wear them.

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  6. I remember crocheted dresses very well. For some reason I couldn't knit at all, but I was a wiz at crochet.

    This sounds very intriguing to me. I'll think I'll give it a go. I've fairly recently read a book with a triple time line, but my foggy migraine brain is having trouble remembering which particular book it was.

    I was wondering, Moira, if recognizing the place in the book pulled you out of the story a bit? I know when I watch a movie set someplace else, and I see something familiar it pulls me completely out.

    "Grosse Pointe Blank" was one that was especially egregious to me, because it was supposedly set in a Detroit suburb, but the high school reunion scene was set at the Veterans' Auditorium in Culver City where I'd spent much of my youth.

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  7. P.S. I also loved "Our Endless Numbered Days!"

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    1. That's a good question about the recognition. It slowly came upon me that I knew where she was talking about, and I could picture it very easily. That doesn't happen often!
      My home town of Liverpool has recently started popping up in all kinds of films, standing in for New York and various other places. I always enjoy seeing it.

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