I devoured Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize nominated novel, in hours, diving straight into its murky, disoriented chapter and allowing Levy’s beautiful prose to lap over me as the novel’s tension built to a sad crescendo.
Levy’s novel covers some well trodden ground – the middle class family villa holiday in a hot country (this time, France); the successful parents as lost in the world as their adolescent offspring – but the powerful poetry of her words takes the cliched and adds a beauty and depth.
The story is slight; set in the mid-90s the novel follows two families in as they holiday in a villa in the south of France. There’s Joe Jacobs – Jozef Nowogrodzki – a successful poet, damaged by his horrifying past and empty present, his war-correspondent wife Isabel and their daughter, Nina. Awkwardly accompanying them are Laura and Mitchell (a wonderfully, grotesque, comic character) who own an ‘ethnic’ shop in Euston and remain largely shadowy, background figures to the drama unfolding in the hazy heat.
The bomb that these family-holiday-gone-wrong novels need arrives in the skinny form of damaged and beautiful Kitty Finch, who has used her connections with the villa’s owner (her mother was her cleaner) as a way to meet her hero/obsession Joe.
Isabel, despite, or because, she recognised Kitty’s obsession with her philandering husband invites Kitty to stay with them in the villa’s spare room, ultimately pushing Joe and Kitty together. Coming off the antidepressant Seroxat, Kitty’s behaviour is volatile, erratic and frightening with an underlying naivety which makes her even more dangerous
Swimming Home’s greatest achievement is Levy’s prose that evokes a dense, dreamy sinister atmosphere punctuated by perfectly timed humour. The detached underwater feel of the novel and the quality of dreamliness that she evokes captures the tensions and emotions of the characters without any of them having to articulate how they’re feeling.
But it’s not a flawless novel, largely because Levy is guilty of one modern literary convention that irks me, that of the characters wearing their wealthy middleclassness like some kind of green flag metaphor. Like Ian McEwan’s more recent works (Saturday wore me out with its hummus soaked overtones) Levy’s characters are successful, wealthy urban middle class – farmers’ market-shopping, swearing-in-front-of-the-children types who probably smoke weed to a soundtrack of Cat Power at dinner parties. Why couldn’t Joe have been a struggling poet who was forced to write celebrity gossip for a website inbetween stanzas to make ends meet? Why the large house in west London? Couldn’t they have lived in a flat in an unfashionably area south of the river? Couldn’t Mitchell and Laura have been estate agents? I understand that the comfortable, affluent, successful lifestyle was meant to juxtapose with the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction (news flash! people with big kitchens can be unhappy too), but I think that their circumstances diluted the point. If these characters had been more every day, their suffering would have been greater, more personal to us (me). I couldn’t see the worth in setting Kitty Finch’s background against the weathier characters, or, rather, I could, but Levy didn’t take it anywhere. Kitty was briefly angry that her mother cleaned rich people’s houses, but she didn’t install any class warfare into Nina, who she took under her wing for a few pages.
But none that has stopped me already beginning to re-read it; I’ll always take beautiful prose over character-quibbles…
by Suzanne Elliott