Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Swimming Lessons - Claire Fuller (House of Anansi Press, 2017)
Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller (House of Anansi Press, 2017)

(Update: I neglected to mention originally that I read this book in an Advanced Reading Copy and the novel will be published in January 2017.)

Swimming Lessons is the story of a family told from opposite directions, a mystery and a disappearance in the middle. In the present day storyline, sisters Nan and Flora return home to care for their elderly father after he has a fall. Gil is a famous novelist who hasn’t written anything or even done much work in years. (Definite shades of I Capture the Castle here.) Nan is the responsible nurse, Flora the wild younger sister.

In alternating chapters, the origin story of their family is told in the form of letters written from the girls’ mother, Ingrid, to Gil. Ingrid details the start of and disintegration of their marriage, hiding the letters inside Gil’s immense book collection before she completely disappears. Ingrid’s disappearance takes place eleven years before the present day timeline and still her daughters and husband don’t know what happened to her.

I generally find the epistolary-style of storytelling to be artificial. Why is Ingrid going into great detail to tell Gil things he already knows, or describing things he’s seen himself? Hiding the letters in the books seems like more of a gimmick than something a real person would do. That said, Gil and Ingrid’s story is far more interesting than Nan and Flora’s. Nan is more of a side character while Flora dips toward the cliche with her unsteady behaviour. Dying Gil seems nothing like the vibrant, charismatic man Ingrid describes but maybe that’s the point.

It’s a sad story, about the things left unsaid in relationships and the power we have to hur those we love most. While I didn’t find anything spectacular here, overall the novel was still an entertaining read and I would be willing to read more from Fuller.

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