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.