Book review: ‘The Swimming Pool’ by Louise Candlish

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‘I can’t take my eyes off the water. Can you?’

It’s summer when Elm Hill lido opens, having stood empty for years. For Natalie Steele – wife, mother, teacher – it offers freedom from the tightly controlled routines of work and family. Especially when it leads her to Lara Channing, a charismatic former actress with a lavish bohemian lifestyle, who seems all too happy to invite Natalie into her elite circle.

Soon Natalie is spending long days at the pool, socializing with new friends and basking in a popularity she didn’t know she’d been missing. Real life, and the person she used to be, begins to feel very far away.

But is such a change in fortunes too good to be true? Why are dark memories of a summer long ago now threatening to surface? And, without realizing, could Natalie have been swept dangerously out of her depth?

Now more than ever, it feels as though we’re living in the golden age of female writers – especially amongst those authors writing about women in bolder and daring ways.

Last year, I was captivated by Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, and since then I’ve been searching for books focusing on the experience of older women breaking norms. The Swimming Pool is a gripping read which centres on the start of primary school teacher Natalie’s summer break, and her fascination with the opening of a new lido in her village. More than the lido however, it is the allure of Lara Channing that has Natalie fascinated beyond measure.

A novel set in the summer like The Swimming Pool would not be complete without overflowing tension. The way in which the narrative circles around the lido creates a sultry and titillating atmosphere, and one that complements the growing tension between every character in the novel. Natalie’s family begins to drift further apart as a result of Lara’s arrival, and her relationships become far more strained as the story moves on.

Writers can often become carried away in providing too much detail and losing their readers throughout the novel, but Candlish’s writing is perfectly paced. The shifts between past and present give much to think about for the reader, particularly as Natalie’s character is not as perfect as one would expect. Just as the water in the novel drags everyone towards it, so does the past. A particularly good facet of the novel is the mystery surrounding the Channing family, and the insight into Natalie’s psyche as she attempts to understand how her age impacts her outlook on life:

“I must be experiencing the terrible midlife realization they say awaits us all, that the departure of youth is not some temporary wheeze, like when you have flu and look a decade older in the bathroom mirror, but is permanent, gone and never coming back.”

Natalie’s character carries the novel seamlessly from start to finish, and she is fascinating when revealing her induction into a glamorous new social scene. The most important relationship born from the novel is that between Natalie and Lara, with its sexual undertones and intensity. In fact, Lara reminded me very much of the allure that Daisy in The Great Gatsby represents, and her grip on Natalie increases constantly. Natalie’s fixation on Lara becomes the focus of the novel, and the lido adds to the confusion and ambiguity of the characters’ lives. Candlish is an expert at psychological exploration, and regularly blurs the lines between sexual promise and adoration:

“As she [Lara] began to circle me in that smooth way of hers that hardly rippled the surface, I grew freshly aware of our bare skin under the water. If our feet or hands or knees or elbows made contact, would it be different knowing the rest of us was naked?”

As the Channings begin to weave their magic around Natalie and envelope her own family into their lives, the novel begins to take an interesting turn and addresses the various ways in which friendships form and break down, how age and motherhood can affect one’s self-esteem and confidence and inevitably, the intriguing way in which middle-aged women’s lives often become derailed. Throughout the book there is a constant sense of danger and of death, which keeps readers on edge.

The Swimming Pool is dark and unpredictable – a seductive thriller that will keep the reader guessing until the very end, and proof that all that glitters is not gold…

Rating: 9/10

Louise Candlish studied English at University College London and worked as an editor in art publishing and as a copywriter before writing fiction. Though her stories are are about people facing dramatic dilemmas, she tries to live an uncomplicated life in London with her husband and daughter.

Follow Louise Candlish on Twitter: @louise_candlish

The Swimming Pool will be published on 28th July. It can be purchased here.

 

 

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Book review: ‘The Lemon Grove’, by Helen Walsh.

Photo credit: Amazon

“He is wearing a pair of plain blue swimming shorts, otherwise, he is naked before her. He is muscular, but graceful with it, balletic. He is shockingly pretty…”

Each summer, Jenn and her husband Greg return to Deià, on Mallorca’s dramatic west coast. This year the arrival of Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, and her new boyfriend Nathan threatens to upset their equilibrium. Beautiful and reckless, Nathan stirs something unexpected in Jenn. As she is increasingly seduced by Nathan’s youth and the promise of passion, the line between desire and obsession begins to blur.

I love a thrilling read. I love knowing a book is going to present me with an impossible, frightening situation and place me slap-bang in the middle of characters in sheer turmoil.

This is what attracted me to Helen Walsh’s latest book release, The Lemon Grove. First of all, the cover of the book screams sensuality. Read the blurb, flip to the front cover and you’ll feel the tension instantly. A shapely woman swims, gliding through a gorgeous, blue pool, while a more youthful, colder girl looks on. The distance between them is contradictory; both are near yet far apart from one another. The cover is almost too beautiful to discard. As a reader, you know something will ruin this image, but also, that it’s already in ruins.

The novel is centred around a holiday in Deià, Mallorca. According to Walsh, it’s “a love letter to the West coast of Mallorca and its slowly evolving face”, and a love letter is exactly what you get. The location is perhaps the most important facet of the novel. You never feel too far away from the coastline. The waves of the sea, the rocky stones, the smooth yet uneven pebbles, the hidden caves and pathways in and around the coastal areas are described exquisitely and constantly appear to engulf the characters. I found myself understanding Jenn’s constant need to immerse herself in the water – Walsh paints a simply stunning picture of Deià.

Jenn appears as a fairly rational woman at the beginning of the novel. Seemingly in a happy or at least satisfied relationship with Greg, her husband, there doesn’t seem to be any hints of underlying marital tension between the two. We do see her resist Greg’s attempts at encouraging sex and this suggest there is trouble in paradise, however, Walsh doesn’t give enough information away – none that so explicitly predicts Jenn’s later indiscretions with Nathan anyway.

The introduction and arrival of 15-year-old Emma in Deià suggests a shift in Jenn and Greg’s relationship – Greg is her biological father, while Jenn is her step-mother. Emma is moody, blunt and constantly changing her tune. She becomes the first character that threatens the solace of the holiday Jenn and Greg are undertaking, especially as she brings the sultry, stimulating 17-year-old Nathan to the holiday with her.

 Jenn has an interesting character. She is self-restraining, self-aware and maternal. At the same time, she fails to restrain, fails to be aware, and fails in her maternal devotion to Emma. Her overriding sexual desire for Nathan engulfs her – the sexual beast is awakened, and Walsh eroticizes the passages and words used to describe Jenn’s feelings for Nathan. It is sheer lust and carnality. We become a part of her sexual reinvigoration, and Walsh must be applauded for presenting Jenn as such a conflicted yet daring character. The sexuality in the novel simmers, spills over, then bottles itself up. Walsh does not let her readers linger. We gain flashbacks, fast-paced sentences divulging both as little and as much as possible. There is no room for Fifty Shades of Grey style banal, empty sexual encounters.

However, Walsh digs deeper with Jenn, using her character to highlight family relationships under pressure. Jenn’s relationship with Emma appears fragile throughout The Lemon Grove. Jenn teeters around her, secretly loathing her step-daughter’s behaviour and eventually becoming envious of her – especially in relation to Nathan. The novel is not just one about illicit sexual desire, but about the complexities of Jenn mothering a girl who isn’t her own flesh and blood and watching her blossom into womanhood while she herself descends into middle-age. Because of this, perhaps more important that Jenn’s sexual encounters with Nathan is the relationship between her and Emma.

Nathan adds sexual tension. Whether he lends more to the novel is something for readers to decide. Personally, I feel he was a mere plot device, used to address female sexuality and explore mother-daughter relationships. He seamlessly enters the novel and seamlessly leaves. We need no back-story, we just need him.

The ending was disappointing. I wanted more to go wrong. I wanted Jenn to lose control, and I wanted the family to be torn apart forever. Walsh created a tragedy and left me unfulfilled.

Finally, we must address the lemons. They make important appearances throughout the novel. My favourite image appears towards the end, when Walsh sums up Jenn’s character in one sentence:

“Scattered around her [Jenn’s] head are dozens of lemons, gone to seed”.

Make of this sentence what you will, but I instantly thought of Jenn’s deterioration into a liar and adulterer. Throughout the novel, the lemons reminded me of vibrancy, and of bursting. Cutting a lemon, seeing the juice shooting into the air in small, miniscule bursts and smelling the zingy taste that follows after. It also reminded me of eating or licking a lemon, then tasting the unwanted sourness it brings to your mouth, but oddly, wanting to taste it again. The lemons are a reminder of the decisions we make, and the bitterness that can arise from an otherwise beautiful-looking fruit. Who needs the forbidden fruit of the apple? The lemon grove in the novel is just as desirable, just as bitter and just as dangerous.

The Lemon Grove keeps you on the edge. With Jenn, we become sexual voyeurs too. The novel entices, and just as quickly leaves you pining for more. It is intense and an easy, gripping read.

Rating: 4/5