Swimming Lessons | Book Club / Book Club

23rd February 2017

The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of Ink@84 – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*

‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below.’ Claire Fuller’s provocative new novel opens with an enigma. Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. Has he really just seen her, alive and well, on the seafront? Or has his aging imagination somehow conjured her out of the sea mist?

The possibility of a sighting is enough to bring their grown children, Nan and Flora, scurrying back to the family home. In the days that follow, they attempt to unravel the mystery of their mother’s disappearance. Is she really dead? Or did she simply choose to desert them all those years ago?

They spar, reveal long-held resentments, and skirt around the truth, unaware that the answer lies buried within the books that surround them. For it is in a series of Ingrid’s letters to Gil, written over a period of years and carefully placed in not-so-random volumes of his vast library, that we eventually discover the truth. The letters slowly unravel the story of Gil and Ingrid’s life together, from the time of their earliest meeting when Ingrid pitches up as a student in his class, to the day sixteen years later when she leaves, swimming defiantly into the surf.


This is part ghost story, part epistolary novel, part psychological mystery. Fuller’s genius lies in bringing Ingrid so vividly to life through her letters that her past becomes almost more real to us than the present. When we first meet her in 1976 she is an idealistic young student, determined with her best friend Louise, to avoid the futility of their mother’s lives. Ingrid and Louise vow to travel the world and lead a life devoid of things: ‘children, husbands, houses, men – they all just tie you down,’ declares Louise staunchly.

But for Ingrid at least, things do not go to plan. Enter Gil Coleman: clever, talented university lecturer, still darkly handsome at 39, with a voice ‘made for bedtime radio’ — and soon to be famous. On the first day of class he urges his students to reveal one of their darkest, most private truths, for these he assures them, are ‘the lifeblood of a writer.’ Gil himself leads off the exercise with a story that Ingrid instantly recognizes as a lie, thus setting the stage for a lifetime of betrayal. But against Louise’s advice, she rushes into an affair, which eventually saddles her with the life she had so desperately wanted to avoid.

Ingrid’s tale of slow suffocation as a mother and wife to a philandering husband is interlaced with that of her daughter’s attempts to define themselves in her absence, haunted as they are by her abandonment. And at the centre of this story sits the much-lauded but still tragic figure of Gil, whose arrogance and selfishness have wrought havoc on them all.

Claire Fuller burst upon the literary scene in 2015 with her widely praised debut, Our Endless Numbered Days, the story of a delusional father who kidnaps his own daughter to avoid Armageddon, which scooped the Desmond Elliott Prize. Swimming Lessons is an impressive follow-up: wise, gripping and even more assured.

Words by Betsy Tobin

*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our new tote bags.

Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or purchase our book club titles from Ink@84.

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  • An excellent review of Fuller’s new novel, expanding on the brief back-cover blurb without spoiling the plot or answering the question ‘Is she really dead?’ The review increases the sense of intrigue and hints at avenues the reader may be lead down, and has made me even more certain that this is definitely a book I want to read.

  • I really liked the book it is beautifully written with sensual and evocative writing. I liked the way the story unfolded bit by bit like a jigsaw puzzle. All the characters were well crafted and very believable. As a librarian I was also interested in the books mentioned! A really good gripping read even better than her first novel

  • A memorable read. I loved this book, maybe because I was at university in the 70s and could relate to Ingrid and Louise and had the same determination not to live a life like my mother’s one. The dual narrative of Ingrid’s life and current events drew out the mystery of what happened to Ingrid and I was waiting for her letters to be discovered all through the book. I will go and read Our Endless Numbered Days now.

  • Such an inspiring review – makes me want to rush out and get a copy. It also reminds me of the Anne Tyler novel, Ladder of the Years about the woman who simply walks away from her family as her life is suffocating her. I’m looking forward to comparing them

    • Thank you for your comments, Liz. Ladder of the Years sounds like an interesting comparison so please do come back and share your thoughts.

  • Words fail me! I’ve just finished Swimming Lessons, and I cannot lie: best book I’ve read in years, perhaps even since Our Endless Numbered Days. Gob smacked!

  • I loved this book, great choice for the Book Club. I shall probably read it again before long.

  • By gum! This sounds as though it has it all! Betsy’s précis makes it sound predictable – but also I can hear that it definitely isn’t. Can’t wait .

    • Thank you for your comments, Joanna. It isn’t predictable at all… and with each letter from Ingrid you learn a little more. It is like slowly piecing together the puzzle of a life…

  • Sounds like a fantastic read – ghost stories, mysteries – love them !!!!!

  • This looks like an ideal book for my book group. I shall certainly be buying a copy and recommending it. Thanks for the review.

    • Hi Lynn. Great to hear that you will be mentioning it to your book group. We hope you enjoy being part of our digital book club too!

  • Thanks Betsy. I try to pop in here for reading inspiration and always find your reviews helpful. haven’t read Claire Fuller before but this book is now added to my wishlist. Looking forward to the next book.

  • I have read and enjoyed others recommended in the Toast book club selection (especially The Outrun) and so I definitely trust Betsy’s opinions! I have just bought this book and look forward to running a warm bath later in which to begin reading…

  • Sounds good so I have just ordered this!

  • Having already read this book, I implore everyone else to do so. A beautiful but tragic story full of mystery

  • An unusual venture to check out the Toast Magazine, but was initially drawn to comments on Lisbon, a city I have thoroughly enjoyed.

    Then I saw The Book Club.

    I loved Our Endless Numbered Days….not an avid reader but always delighted to have a good book on the go, and now really excited to read Swimming Lessons after Betsy’s review. Thank you I shall become a fan .

  • So happy I have the book already, bought from my fave local independent in Corbridge (Northumberland). This mystery sounds very promising – so look I forward to reading, commenting and hearing what others think.

  • Off on holiday soon and this will be coming with me … looks an impressive , worthwhile read