Saturday 2 February 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home is the second novel I have read from the 2012 Mann Booker Prize short-list and so there are no surprises that it is taut, finely written, with an evocative setting and an intriguing cast of characters. 
    At first glance, Deborah Levy's new book could be seen as just another story about the middle classes behaving badly on holiday. Joe is a famous poet and emigre Jew who escaped the Holocaust as a child. He arrives at their rented Riviera villa with his war-correspondent wife, Isabel, and their teenage daughter, Nina, to find a beautiful and quite naked young woman swimming in the pool. Actually, she is floating motionless at the bottom which causes consternation in the family and also for their guests, Mitchell and Laura.
    Isabel is the only person with the presence of mind to jump in and see if the girl is all right. The young lovely turns out to be Kitty Finch, a mentally fragile young woman that Isabel invites to stay. Unfortunately, Kitty turns out to have an unhealthy obsession with Joe's poetry, seems to be anorexic, and is the walking embodiment of the kinds of demons Joe has been battling for years. 
    Both are afflicted by depression, and it is depression that is the lurking evil in the book, ready to destroy the lives of its characters. Isabel also has her problems - her career has seen her witness terrible things, she has missed out on being a mother to her daughter, and has put up with her husband's repeated infidelity.
    Mitchell spends money like water, money he doesn't have, while Laura frets about their shop and the likelihood that they'll have to close it.
    Meanwhile the sun always shines, there are orchards and beaches to explore and Nina is growing up. The feeling of being young and on holiday in a beautiful place is very real here -  you can almost hear the cicadas and feel the sun on your face. Nina is a sensitive girl who dotes on her father, while worrying about the interloper, Kitty Finch. 
    Tension builds when Kitty insists Joe read her poem, 'Swimming Home', which Joe tries to ignore for as long as he can. He knows he will have to read it eventually, just as he knows he can't ignore her beauty and youthfulness, or their shared affliction.
    It seems the characters are headed for disaster. Can Isabel come to the rescue yet again, or perhaps Nina, who seems so sensitive to what is happening? 
    Swimming Home is a slim volume - you can read it in an afternoon - but there is a lot going on beneath its impeccably crafted surface. I'm sure it deserves its place on the Booker short-list, but if I were you I would skip Tom McCarthy's gushy introduction, which might make you imagine the book to be rather more high-brow than it really is.
    By the way, The Guardian supplied a set of six compelling video clips, explaining why each of the short-listed titles should win the Mann Booker Prize, as it did for this one:

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