Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s first novel for fifteen years, is a slim volume which has the outward appearance of a novella rather than a novel. This, coupled with what seems to be a somewhat conventional storyline of marital infidelity in a holiday villa in the south of France, makes Levy’s book, at first sight, an unlikely contender for the Man Booker prize. However, this spare narrative is neither predictable nor shallow. Throughout the multi-layered tale Levy explores the effects of depression (on the sufferer and those around them), repression and failed relationships.
The story is set in July 1994 in southern France. A successful poet, Joe(Jozef)Jacobs, has hired a villa for the season and arrives there with his wife, Isabel, their daughter, Nina, and friends, Laura and Mitchell, only to find a naked young woman(Kitty Finch)swimming in the pool. Kitty, a botanist and aspiring poet, claims that her presence there is due to “a mistake with the rental dates” but none of the protagonists believe her. However, Isabel invites Kitty to stay, a gesture which surprises everyone, given her husband’s history of philandering. Their guest, an anorexic depressive who frequently appears naked, is obsessed with Joe (who also has a history of depression) and his poetry. It is the effect on all the occupants of this interloper’s presence at the villa that drives the plot towards its tragic ending.
Levy’s characters are credible but almost entirely unsympathetic. Joe, a successful “arsehole poet” is frequently unfaithful to his rather remote war correspondent wife. One senses that Joe and Isabel’s invitation to their unsuccessful and unattractive friends (Mitchell is bald with “flabby prawn-pink arms”) is motivated by a desire to feel superior, despite their own failing relationship, rather than through any sense of altruism. The lonely, elderly lady next door muses, “when couples offer shelter or a meal to strays and loners, they do not really take them in. They play with them. Perform for them.”
It is easy, however, to empathise with the couple’s daughter, Nina, who is arguably the main protagonist of the novel. It transpires that this sensitive, intelligent adolescent has learned to “pretend that she was having a perfect childhood” despite her father’s frequent bouts of depression and her mother’s physical and emotional absence. It is the “mental” Kitty, not her mother, who Nina turns to when she menstruates for the first time.
Levy’s style is elliptic, witty and sharp. The book is littered with metaphor and symbols. The pubescent Nina wears a patterned cherry- red bikini and the swimming pool from which Kitty emerges is not full of crystal clear water but is “more like a pond” full of cloudy water and debris.
Confronted by Kitty’s nudity and complete lack of inhibition, the other characters are forced to examine the costumes they have assumed to hide their own failures, from themselves as much as anyone else. “Why do you kill animals and birds?” Kitty asks the gluttonous, hunter-gatherer, Mitchell. “It takes my mind off things”. The “things” are his failing business and impending financial ruin. The cold, distant Isabel is compelled to acknowledge her failure as a mother and feels she is “imitating someone else she used to be.” But Kitty has the most profound effect on Joe who, despite his charismatic, “up himself” persona, is haunted by his “black oily past” as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Should Swimming Home win the Man Booker Prize? It is certainly a worthy contender and is as good as last year’s winner, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. It is, however, no match for the 2009 winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or her sequel Bring Up the Bodies, also short-listed this year. In a recent interview, Levy referred to Swimming Home as a “page-turner about sorrow”. This is an apt description of her novel, which is a more rewarding read than its slender appearance and clichéd storyline might suggest.
Gillian E. Macdonald