Claire Fuller: Swimming Lessons (2017)

Swimming Lessons is English author Claire Fuller’s second novel. After coming across more than one raving review by book bloggers and critics, I decided I had to read it.

Flora and Nan’s mother has disappeared twelve years ago. One day, their father, Gil Coleman, thinks he’s seen her and while trying to get a better look accidentally falls from a seafront. Nan, the older sister, a nurse, calls Flora and begs her to come home and help her look after their dad.

Unlike Gil and Nan, Flora doesn’t believe that her mother has drowned. She thinks that she simply chose to leave and might still return one day.

After the first chapter in which Flora travels to her childhood home, a swimming pavilion, the narrative splits. The parts in the present are told from Flora’s POV, the parts in the past are written in the form of letters Ingrid writes to Gil before she disappears. Ingrid hides the letters in the pages of Gil’s books. Gil Coleman, who is the famous author of a scandalous book, has an interesting hobby. He collects old books. Not because of the books but because of the things he finds in them— the notes and drawings of their readers. In one of these he finds a letter from his missing wife. Ingrid’s letters unfold their complex, difficult, and destructive marriage.

Most readers seem to have liked the marriage story told by Ingrid in the letters. While I found some elements interesting, overall, the parts set in the present, spoke to me much more.  The most interesting element of Ingrid’s story is her feelings for her children. She doesn’t relate to her two daughters. The first one, Nan, was an accident and somehow Ingrid always saw her as an independent being. Flora, the third, is very much Gil’s daughter. I guess that’s why the parts in the present are told from her and not from Nan’s point of view. She adores and idolizes her father. Finding out the truth about her parent’s marriage is more of a surprise and a shock to her than it is to the reader. One of the tragedies of Ingrid’s life is that the child she relates to the most was stillborn. When she’s pregnant with him, she already knows that Gil is unfaithful and she’s very lonely. She projects so much on this child and is sure he will become her companion. When he dies, she feels like she’s lost her only true child and her chance at happiness and companionship. I found this extremely sad and problematic for everyone involved. For Ingrid, because she lost that baby and for her two girls because they mean less to their mother than a child who didn’t even live.

The parts told by Flora were those I could relate to the most. They show how difficult it is to live with a family secret and what a challenge it can be, coming from a dysfunctional family, to have healthy relationships.

One of the main themes of the novel is ambiguous loss. There’s a story one character tells the others, in which a child gets lost and it mirrors Ingrid’s story. The loss is magnified because they never get closure. It’s possible she’s dead but it’s just as possible, she left them. Gil and Nan, both believe she’s dead and have moved on, but Flora, for the longest time, cannot move on as she’s still hoping her mother’s out there somewhere.

Whole books have been written about ambiguous loss. There are other forms of ambiguous loss, not only those, in which the body of the disappeared was never found but also those in which the mind has gone but the body’s still around, like in the case of dementia or Alzheimer patients. I haven’t experienced anything like this but I always thought it must be devastating. It’s an important topic and I loved how subtly it was explored in this novel.

This is one of those books I enjoyed far less while reading it than after finishing it. I’m not always keen on split narratives. I often prefer one narrator/POV and going back and forth between two or more can get on my nerves. But when a book is really good, it can come together as whole, once we finish reading. And that was the case here. The longer I thought about it, the more I liked it. I found the characters, especially quirky Flora, interesting and relatable and I absolutely loved the sense of place. The descriptions of the swimming pavilion and the surrounding landscape of marshes and ponds, is what held the book together. The imagery was so strong that I can still picture the place with great detail. The ending was unexpected and powerful.

If you like stories of dysfunctional families and family secrets, books with a strong sense of place, and fully rounded, complex characters, you might enjoy this subtle, haunting story that lingers in the mind long after the book is finished.

How Gruesome Does A Realisic Account Have To Be? – On Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2012)

A visit to a book shop on Friday evening led me to Jeannette Winterson’s latest book The Daylight Gate. It was in the fantasy section and from the description I gathered it was a book on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, the most famous of the English witch trials. Why this book was in the fantasy section wasn’t entirely clear to me as witch trials are a historical fact and hardly fantastic. Maybe it was because of the way it was written?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of the trials of witches. Interested and horrified. And I often pick up novels on the subject. In the past I’ve read Eveline Hasler’s amazing but untranslated Anna Göldin. Letzte Hexe (Anna Göldin. Last Witch) on the last witch trial in Switzerland, in 1782. The way the book was told is amazing because it reads like an old trial report. It’s sober and very impersonal which created an eerie feeling of realism. Maryse Condé chose an entirely different approach for her I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem – Moi Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem. That’s a novel I didn’t only find fascinating but really loved. It’s tragic but beautiful as well. A third novel which many people like but I found dry and unappealing was Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity.

I was keen to find out how Jeanette Winterson would treat this subject. It seems that content-wise The Daylight Gate is very close to Robert Neill’s Mist Over Pendle. Pendle Hill in Lancashire was said to be the home of witches. While there may be a similarity content-wise, there certainly is none in the execution.

Maybe the fact that it was in the fantasy section misled me. While I didn’t expect a fantasy novel as such, I most certainly wasn’t prepared for something this gruesome. This was by far the most gruesome book I’ve ever read. It’s really not for the faint of heart and it literally made me sick. For someone who is used to read accounts on war this is an intense reaction and it really made me wonder if the book had to be this gruesome to be realistic? Witches are frequent figures in fantasy novels and fairy tales. They can be black or white but some romantic ideas may often be tied to them. Maybe Jeanette Winterson wanted to prevent any idealization or romantic notions. While there are a few instances of magic in the novel – mostly linked to the figures of John Dee and Edward Kelley – the focus is on fanaticism. There is nothing romantic in women and men being persecuted by zealots. Women and Catholics alike were hunted by King James’ henchmen. King James, a fervent  and fanatic protestant, who believed he was attacked by witches, hunted and executed numerous men and women. And had them tortured. And this is the gruesome part, as the torture scenes are described in great detail.

Not only are we served detailed descriptions of torture but of incest and rape as well. Children are sold to their own father. Many a poor woman’s only chance at survival is to sell her body. Often they received not only food but many negative things in exchange. They got pregnant or contracted a disease. The scenes in the dungeons are hard to take as well. The dirt, the festering and oozing wounds, the stink…

To call the world of The Daylight Gate bleak would be an understatement. This is a dark, very dark and disturbing book. Finishing it felt like coming up for air after having been under water and deprived of oxygen.

Was there anything to like in this book?  Yes, I liked the story of Alice Nutter, a rich woman who acquired her fortune through the invention of a magenta dye. An independent and strong woman. Beautiful and free. She was convicted together with 12 other women and men. She seems to serve as proof that it wasn’t about witchcraft but that at the core of those trials was hatred. Hatred against poor people and women.

While I see why Jeannette Winterson chose this approach, I’m not sure it had to be this gruesome. A little less show but tell would have been my preference here. If we had read “He was emasculated” would we not have gotten the picture? Did we need to read how it was done in a page long, detailed description? We get a full blow. No room for romantic notions here, fanaticism and ugliness are laid bare.

To be honest, I could have done without reading this. As well written as it was, as much as I was fascinated by the story of Alice Nutter, I cannot understand how a writer can let loose such utter ugliness. If you know and like Jeanette Winterson, just bear in mind, this might be her most disturbing work.

What do you think? How gruesome should a realistic account of torture and pain be?