Title: Swimming Lessons
Writer: Claire Fuller
Publishing House: Penguin
Date of Publication: February 1st 2018 (first published February 7th 2017)
Rating: 5 stars
”Black waves would lift the boat up and roll it with the swell, like mountains rising where there had been no mountains before.”
Flora has an awful burden on her shoulders. Trying to pursue her studies, coping with having a rather dull boyfriend, distancing herself from the tiniest trace of emotion. Her dysfunctional family has taught her that you have only yourself to rely on. A mother who couldn’t cope with having an indifferent husband who was also a manipulative fraud and a sister who cannot understand her. However, Flora is now forced to face the past in a house full of abandoned stacks of books and unread (?) letters. And the sea is a neighbour that seems to know all the answers but reveals nothing…
Claire Fuller’s novel is very different from Bitter Orange. Here we have a family story, told in a quiet, haunting language, graced with some of the most beautiful descriptions dedicated to the sea. Ingrid and Flora are two sides of the same coin. Ingrid is a child of the 70s, a young woman who had to abandon her dreams to start a family, and Flora is trying to come to terms with a life devoid of the motherly presence in the most difficult of times. Around them are hypocrites like Gil, the fraud of a husband and a father, Louise, a terrible, toxic woman, and Nan who enjoys hiding the problems under the carpet.
Claire Fuller masterfully tackles themes that are always relevant to women and the way we are still viewed by society. We are still asked to play the family-type role model, to become ”good” wives and mothers, to forget a career-driven life. Otherwise, we are pressured to combine the two and excel in both roles, which is often the case. Although there have been huge steps ahead, these notions still thrive. In certain parts of the world, they are stronger than ever because what is progress? I felt that Fuller posed many crucial questions and provided much food for thought in this novel. What about going against the flow? What happens when you realize -rather late, I fear- that motherhood isn’t for you? What are the consequences when you feel you are doing your ” duty”, obeying to the wishes of others, ignoring your own instincts because of a silly infatuation? And lies? Lies are everywhere, paving the way to isolation and regret.
As always, she provides a sharp, realistic and honest view of the literary world. The writer’s microcosm, the pressure of the ”best-seller” that is trash more often than not, the male-dominated publishing lifestyle of the 70s, the perception of the readers. She creates characters that many readers would characterize as deeply unsympathetic, reflecting the worst aspects of our lying nature and this is a great token of how marvelous a writer she is. I didn’t like the cast. At all. And yet, I couldn’t wait to hold the book in my hands and continue reading because I wanted to live with them and witness the consequences of their actions. And it is often these characters that stay with you.
For me, the strongest symbol in the novel is the sea, a ruthless witness. A silent presence, observing and judging and offering shelter, a majorly ambiguous symbol. Swimming is an act of freedom and momentary oblivion or a deathly trap. The sea is the origin of life and a mortal danger. Watching the open sea is like looking into the abyss and who can say what thoughts are born in our minds during these moments?
Claire Fuller takes the story of a family and creates a novel that feels like a brewing storm. Family dynamics and aspirations, motherhood and social status, isolation and impending loss. And the sea is watching…
”What do you think happens in the gaps, the unsaid things, everything you don’t write? The reader fills them from their own imagination. But does each reader fill them how you want or in the same way? Of course not.”