A phone call from her elder sister, Nan, to say their father has had an accident, summons twentysomething Flora back to the family home on England’s south coast. Richard, the man who’s sharing her bed when she hears the news, lends her his car to make the late-night journey. When, much to Flora’s irritation, Richard arrives by public transport the next day, her father, Gil, just discharged from hospital, encourages him to stay. Over the next few weeks, the four continually reassess their relationships with each other, with Gil’s terminal diagnosis and with the absent mother, Ingrid, who has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years. Interspersed with these chapters set in 2004 are letters from Ingrid to Gil charting their relationship from her first meeting as his student, through five (mostly unwanted) pregnancies to her eventual departure from his life, hidden between the pages of the household’s mountains of books.
Cleverly crafted and beautifully written – and with a killer first line (see above) to equal that of her prize-winning debut, Our Endless Numbered Days – Swimming Lessons is an engaging tale of loss and family secrets. Although the young woman’s career cut short when seduced by philandering older man narrative is not particularly novel, it’s always worth retelling and Claire Fuller brings a different slant through the emphasis on the impact on her daughters and through the epistolary structure. (For other novels using this device see Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle. The towers of books also reminded me of the quirky The Lost Time Accidents. Finally, related issues are explored in this post on the fictional cheating husband.) Thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for my advance proof copy.
‘Babies are supposed to cry when you leave them,’ Audrey said. ‘They’re meant to cry. It means they expect you to come back.’
‘So I’m a bad mother because you don’t cry when you were a baby.’
We’ve barely been introduced to Katy when her life’s snuffed out via a length of yellow piping connecting the exhaust to the inside of her car. Her family and friends are shocked, baffled and bewildered; she is the last person they’d expect to commit suicide, and she hasn’t left a note. Adam seems particularly grief-stricken, but it’s Katy’s other best friend, Audrey, who becomes the focus of Jennifer Down’s debut novel set in Melbourne and Sydney. All too well accustomed to adversity, Audrey does her best to hold things together, containing everyone’s emotions but her own.
The middle child of warring parents – an alcoholic father who beat them all and once broke her nose, and a narcissistic mother with a diagnosis of manic depression – twenty-four-year-old Katy is a social worker specialising in child protection, but her responsibilities don’t end when she leaves the office. In between propping up her mother and younger brother, Bernie, subsidising his rent as well as his drug habit, she tries to live a normal life of parties, drink and drugs, while supporting Adam to reconcile himself to Katy’s death. Her boyfriend, Nick, tries to support her, but he has his own stressful job as a paramedic and Audrey’s ambivalence about her vulnerability makes them squabble. At work, her manager is sympathetic but, instead of suggesting paid time off to recuperate, grants her leave of absence to look for another job. Her GP, while giving her a thorough physical check-up, doles out a prescription for temazepam instead of referring her for psychotherapeutic support. As life feels progressively harder, Audrey fears she’ll end up as disturbed as her mother.
Jennifer Down, herself only in her 20s, paints a poignant portrait of insecure attachment, starting with the baby who doesn’t cry, developing to the noise-averse hypervigilant child (p201):
jumping at small noises … always expecting the worst … she’d divined her parents’ moods preternaturally
to the adult who forges her identity as a professional carer. Audrey made me want to get on a plane to Australia – or at least make contact through Skype – and persuade her that the only one she could save was herself and she wasn’t going the right way about it, so I didn’t find it a relaxing read. But I appreciated reading sympathetic portrayal of a young social worker, especially as that’s the profession of one of the point of view characters in the novel I’m working on right now. My character, Janice, also had an insecure start, but was adopted into a loving family and doesn’t have half of what poor Audrey has to cope with!
Our Magic Hour is an engaging character study of a young woman more adept at caring for others than herself. I’d have appreciated a stronger narrative arc but, if you’d like to learn more about these themes, it’s worth a read. Thanks to Text publishing for my review copy.