Monday, February 4, 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, this slim novel reads like a play, the action centered on a small group of people gathered at a tourist villa in seaside France. Levy's history as a playwright and poet informs her work as a novelist. Description is given like stage direction: ”His daughter, Nina Jacobs, fourteen years old, standing at the edge of the pool in her new cherry-print bikini, glanced anxiously at her mother.” The spare quality of the language is as precise in places as poetry.

Consider the name Kitty Finch. Both predator and prey, she is our protagonist. Her eyes are the grey of the tinted windows of the Mercedes rental--harder to see into than out of. She is quite mad: “touched, barmy, bonkers, barking…” And she likes to be naked, which is where we first see her, floating as though dead in the pool of the tourist villa in the Alpes-Maritimes.

She is not dead when they find her, the family that takes her in. She is off her meds, and stalking the famous poet in the family, though they don’t know that at first. What they all seem to understand at a glance, and we readers also, is that this young woman is going to infect them all.

The truth is, in Deborah Levy’s hands, all of the characters are naked, even young Nina Ekaterina in her cherry-print bikini is naked at the end. Isabel, her mother, is a hyper-kinetic TV journalist who doesn't spend enough time with her daughter and dreams of leaving her famous poet husband, “JHJ, Joe, Jozef, the famous poet, the British poet, the arsehole poet, the Jewish poet, the atheist poet, the modernist poet, the post-Holocaust poet, the philandering poet,” after another of his trysts. The friends Laura and Mitchell wear their defeat at the closing of their store like an empty wallet or a fat-padded suit. Madeline, the doctor, is old and close to death: “her nails were crumbling, her bones weakening, her hair thinning, her waist gone forever. The smell of burnt sugar made her greedy for the nuts that would at last, she hoped, choke her to death.” For all of these characters, “ITS RAINING.”

But they all realize, eventually, that there really isn’t anything they would change about each other. Isabel wanted to tell Jozef that “she would have liked to feel his love fall upon her like rain. That was the kind of rain she most longed for in their long unconventional marriage.” And Nina finds herself talking to her father years later, on a bus when “rain is falling on the chimney of Tate Modern.” “Life must always win us back” from our dreams, especially when it rains.

My favorite passage, given to Joe, is quoted here at length:
”I can’t stand THE DEPRESSED. It’s like a job, it’s the only thing they work hard at. Oh good my depression is very well today. Oh good today I have another mysterious symptom and I will have another one tomorrow. The DEPRESSED are full of hate and bile and when they are not having panic attacks they are writing poems. What do they want their poems to DO? Their depression is the most VITAL thing about them. Their poems are threats. ALWAYS threats. There is no sensation that is keener or more active than their pain. They give nothing back except their depression. It’s just another utility. Like electricity or water and gas and democracy. They could not survive without it. GOD, I’M SO THIRSTY. WHERE’S CLAUDE?”

My guess is that this would be a great book to listen to on audio. Check it out and report back.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Replies
    1. I was suprised to find it so slim. It is a relatively quick read, and disconcerting, since much of it feels out of control as a result of the young woman. But it is in thinking about it afterward that develops the real flavor and depth...I loved the utter frustration voiced in that paragraph quoted at the end of my review...and the utter truth of it.

  2. I got this for Christmas and can't wait to read it :-) Great review.

    1. Look forward to what you think, Marie.