I was tugged into the murky depths of this cleverly constructed poolside psychodrama (published May 2016, Penguin UK). It’s centred on a newly restored lido, supposedly somewhere in London. (I want to know where, it sounds amazing!) Natalie the novel’s narrator discovers the lido one summer when, set free from the school where she teaches, she’s led into the orbit of oh-so-glamorous Lara.
The constraints of her teaching career, her drab flat in the wrong part of Elm Hill along with the habitual preachiness of her maths teacher husband Ed make Natalie vulnerable to the attentions of local celeb and sophisticate Lara, who lives in the best street in Elm Hill (overlooking the lido), speaks in a louche throaty drawl (well, she did in the audio book) and dresses like a diva. In contrast Natalie is plainish with a large birthmark, which has made her insecure about her appearance.
Nat, helplessly drawn to Lara, finds life increasingly wrapped around her new friend. Nat’s aquaphobic daughter Molly, 13, is befriended by Lara’s gorgeous 15-year old daughter Georgia, the bees knees in a group of friends who congregate almost daily around the lido and get up to things that Nat, anxious about her daughter’s well-being, would like to know about. Meanwhile Ed, according to Lara an Alain Delon-lookalike, starts to give maths lessons to the Georgia, while Lara seems keen to help Molly overcome her fear of getting in the water…
The book is on the long side, be warned. The plot has a complex structure with its foundations in the present (at the bedside of Molly, seriously ill following an incident we aren’t told much about) and swirling around significant events in the distant past (centred on a suburban pond, Nat’s haunt one wild summer with her bad-girl friend Mel) and the recent past (the big end-of-summer lido party). This device worked for me, though reading on paper/screen may have proved easier to follow than the audio version (I kept wondering if I’d lost my place).
So many undercurrents swirl around this novel, touching on social anxiety, envy, the desire to the in-crowd, the fear of stagnation and ageing… The title of the novel references the 1969 film La Piscine starring Alain Delon, recently remade, which Lara screens to her friends to celebrate the lido’s opening. There are hints that the novel might come to parallel the film (in which an attractive teenage girl stokes the rivalry between her father and his male friend, who ends up drowned in a villa pool). I wondered if and how it would do that. Another question posed but unanswered for much of the book, is why Lara wants to befriend Nat?
There’s plenty of suspense in the wait for answers, along with some truly dark stuff as we go back to Nat’s childhood misdeeds. We discover she is struggling with the burden of a dark secret involving things she did as a teenager, and she is afraid of her husband and daughter finding out. Her observations are imbued with guilt and regret over unspecified happenings in the recent and more distant past. What exactly she has done as a teen is wisely not divulged until later on in the book. I did find her hard to empathise with at this point; her motivations felt less understandable than I’d like them to have been. Many readers however will be able to relate to Nat’s yearning for greater freedom, excitement and adventure evident at the start of the novel, a sense that life won’t last forever and why the heck should we always be sensible – and who hasn’t been disoriented by the magnetic pull of someone who makes you feel special? Though I didn’t like Lara one bit, she’s an interesting character, outspoken yet intriguingly opaque.
I’d recommend this book if you enjoy a dark psychological drama with some quite disturbing aspects. While I admit to a slight sense of let-down near the end (relating to the opening scene, say no more), there is a well-constructed resolution that surprised me in part and added to my unsettled feeling. This is not a edge-of-your-seat thriller but is definitely a compelling read; the tension ratchets up strongly in the later stages. The writing and characterisation is top notch and everything feels totally believable. The Swimming Pool made me think about forgiveness, what should be forgiven and to what extent people can change. Also, the dangers of swimming pools… I may have to reconsider the next pool party invite.