‘The water was steady and black. An inch below the surface my body disappeared as if it didn’t exist. I swam straight out towards the rising sun, which was under-lighting the clouds with a dramatic orange as if I had been swimming into a Renaissance landscape.’
‘Swimming Lessons’ begins with Gil, an ageing writer of long-forgotten fame, cocooned away in his old house bursting to the seams with books. As he looks out of the window, he sees his dead wife.
By dead, I mean presumed dead. Ingrid hasn’t been seen for years – ever since that one day when she went down to the shore to take a swim. Gil, in a desperate desire to believe that his missing wife has returned, runs after her, down to the sea – then loses his footing and slips on the cliff face.
His doting daughters, Nan (Nanette) and Flora, rush to his bedside. In Flora’s eyes, her father can do no wrong, and she lives in perpetual hope that her mother will return. Nan is older and wiser; she sees their father for who he really is – a flawed man – and knows that their mother is most likely gone for good.
The narrative switches between the “present” in the crumbling house by the sea, and Ingrid’s letters, hidden within the pages of hundreds of books inside the house. Ingrid is only ever real to us through her letters – and it is through her words that we hear what has come to pass over the years, how their little family and their curious lives unfolded.
Ingrid and Gil’s was a passionate love affair; one of those heady, all-too-fast romances that completely obliterates all logic and reason. Ingrid is a final year student, Gil is her professor. It might an all-too-familiar trope, but there is true chemistry here. You can’t help but get the feeling that Gil is a refreshing change from the boys Ingrid is used to – (much) older, somewhat mysterious, quirky, intelligent, a published author… Jonathan, Gil’s best friend, is quick to warn Ingrid off. ‘He’s only looking for two kinds of women,’ he says. Either someone he can fool around with for a couple of weeks and then leave, or a wife.
Ingrid – somewhat accidentally – becomes the latter. She finds herself pregnant, but only has a semester left of her final year – it’ll be grand, she reasons. She can take her finals and then have Gil’s baby and they’ll be blissfully happy for ever more. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how things work out.
Her grand plans of going travelling round the world with her best friend, of being an independent and educated young woman, are gone. Ingrid’s feelings of despair, hopelessness and entrapment – even retrospectively through her letters – is acutely painful.
‘The smell, the light and the furniture were the same, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me for the other life I could have had. I didn’t let it show.’
The letters that Ingrid has written to her husband were the very best thing about this book. Ingrid is a beautifully drawn character – flawed as she undoubtedly is, we get a deep sense of her sacrifice. All the way through, even later in life when she is a mother of two, I still kept picturing the idealistic twenty year old, full of her own hopes and dreams that would never be fulfilled.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is some lovely prose that captures the headiness of being freshly in love. When contrasted with their marriage in later years, it becomes even more poignant;
‘After the party we were on our own for almost a month, in bed with the windows open and the sound of the sea in our ears, sleeping, talking, eating toast and making love amongst the crumbs. You liked to look at me when we’d finished; you would lie at the end of the bed with your head propped up and watch me while I fell asleep. It was too hot even for sheets, but I wasn’t shy. You said everything was beautiful. Sometimes when I woke you’d drawn parts of me in the margins of your books. (Juvenile marginalia.) Everything was beautiful.’
Swimming Lessons is beautifully told. The characters are so exquisitely drawn – in all their realness and humanity. I only wish that the story had been fleshed out a little more – that we could have read more of Ingrid’s letters, heard more of her story firsthand. When I read her final letter, I felt bereft.
This isn’t a love story – it’s just a story about life – the beautiful and the terrible and the mundane in between.
‘Swimming Lessons’ will be published by Penguin on 26th January 2017.
I received a copy of this novel through Netgalley in return for a review.