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.

Daniel Vigne’s Le Retour de Martin Guerre – The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)

I watched a lot of movies with Gérard Depardieu. Not always because I wanted to, often because he was automatically cast in each and every bigger French production. Still, there are a few I haven’t seen yet and The Return of Martin Guerre or Le Retour de MartinGuerre was one of them. I thought it might be a good choice for Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July and so I watched it last week.

There are a lot of things I liked about this movie that is based on a true story that happened in France in the 16th century. The cinematography is stunning, the music by Michel Portal is really great, Depardieu is good and the lovely Nathalie Baye is wonderful. Last but not least I found out when watching this that the US movie Sommersby with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster is a remake of The Return of Martin Guerre.

In a medieval little village in France two young people get married. One couldn’t say that they get along well. The boy, Martin Guerre, is not exactly a good or tender husband, on the very contrary. It seems that married life is just too much for him. One day he runs off and doesn’t come back anymore.

Nine years later, a grown man arrives in the village and is enthusiastically greeted as Martin Guerre by everyone. Finally the runaway has returned to wife and family. Everybody recognizes him, welcomes him and he knows them all as well. He knows each and every little detail of their past life. Still they are aware that he has changed a lot. He tells them that he has been at war these past nine years and that he has seen a lot of awful things. Maybe war has made him a better man? He is joyful, easy-going and very gentle with his wife. The relationship they have is completely different from what they had before. They enjoy each other’s company and are very much in love. Others are affected by this happiness as well. It seems that the return of Martin Guerre changed everybody’s life for the better. Soon there will be a second child and things would be perfect if Martin did not decide to ask his uncle for money.

From this moment on, things change drastically. People start to say that he is not Martin Guerre. He is dragged into court but declared innocent. As soon as he is out there are new accusations and new proofs. The movie turns into a court room drama. He is acquitted again and accused once more.

Knowing that this is a true story and seeing the outcome is quite heartbreaking. It is also shown how great the influence of the Church is and how superstitions arise. At one point there is talk of the devil and of black magic. People really do not know whether it is him or not, everybody is confused.

Vigne’s movie is highly watchable and I liked especially how the music, the pictures and the story go hand in hand and complete each other.

I’m sorry for this blurred trailer. On top of that I couldn’t find the one with the English subtitles but the movie is available with English subtitles. At least you can hear a bit of Portal’s music.

Jo Walton: Among Others (2010)

With a deft hand and a blazing imagination, fantasy writer Walton mixes genres to great effect. Elements of fantasy, science fiction, and coming-of-age novels combine into one superlative literary package that will appeal to a variety of readers across age levels. After engaging in a classic good-magic-versus-bad-magic battle with her mother that fatally wounds her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna leaves Wales and attempts to reconnect with her estranged father. She was sent to boarding school in England, and her riveting backstory unfolds gradually as she records her thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a series of journal entries.

Jo Walton’s Among Others is an absolutely charming book. Despite the fact that there are some magical things happening this isn’t a fantasy novel.  It is a novel about fantasy and SF and, if anything, I would call it magical realism. What is charming about this book is not the magic, which is raw, wild and dangerous but Morwenna’s voice and her love of books, reading and libraries.

Morwenna’s story unfolds in a series of diary entries. The year is 1979 and Morwenna has just arrived at and English boarding school. She is a 15-year-old girl from Wales whose twin sister has died in an accident. The very same accident has left her injured and crippled. As we learn in the novel the accident was the result of their evil mother’s doing. The girls tried to stop her from getting more power through magic and that’s how the accident happened.

Morwenna is an outsider at her new school. She is crippled and the only one from Wales. But that isn’t the only thing that makes her an outsider. She knows that she is different. Her mother is a witch. Morwanna only just met her father whose sisters are witches as well, she sees and talks to faeries and she is addicted to reading SF novels. Novels are her consolation.

“It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.”

Books are her escape route but also her way to make sense of the world. Her enthusiasm and love for books is one of the most important elements in this novel. At the boarding school she discovers what libraries have to offer, is introduced to inter library loan which opens the world for her even more and finally she is invited to a SF book club. Once a week she will discuss all her favourite SF and fantasy writers and learn about new books and authors and go on reading her new discoveries in her spare time.

I sat on the bench by the willows and ate my honey bun and read Triton. There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside of the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.

At the book club she meets Tim a gorgeously beautiful boy with a bad reputation. It’s for her to discover whether it is founded or not.

I haven’t read a lot of SF and although I knew the names, I hardly knew any of the books still it was captivating to read about them, to see what elements she picked for her life, what themes, questions and speculations fascinated her.

The voice of Morwenna is very well rendered. This sounds like a young girl discovering the world and new books. We follow her thoughts and see how they develop, how wrong assumptions are corrected, how new things are learned.

The magical parts can be read in many different ways. A sceptical reader could just assume that it is all in Morwenna’s imagination. That grief, sadness and the constant pain she is in lead her to fantasize. It would make sense as well. If you are less sceptical you can just accept the fact, that, yes, she does see fairies and has an evil witch mother. The fairies are very interesting beings and she also mentions that they have nothing in common with Tolkien’s elves. Some of them look like gnomes, others are very beautiful. They are tied to places and seem like some sort of condensed energy.

A part that spoke to me is, the description of Morwenna’s pain. The descrptions were very realistic. The way chronic pain changes, how she tries to handle it, the cures that are provided, the wrong therapy she gets from conventional doctors and how she finally gets better through acupuncture.

Jo Walton lives in Canada but she is from Wales. The differnce between Wales and England is emphasized all through the novel. Half of the French side of my family is from Brittany. The difference to the rest of France is very similar. And you also find a lot of magical beliefs in Brittany. I grew up believing in loup-garous (werewolves) and nobody would have made me go out during a full moon when we were on holidays in Morlaix.

Amon Others is a very unusual coming of age story and I’m glad I read about it on Gavin’s blog (here is her post). I can’t imagine that anyone who loves books wouldn’t be able to relate to the intense love of reading that is capured in this book.