Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home opens with a careering, hands-off-the-steering-wheel plunge down a perilous road. You’re given little opportunity from the outset to catch your breath from there to the framing repetitions of this same ride towards the end of this slender, gripping novel.
The story’s chronology commences with the startling arrival of an interloper and the even more startling invitation to the interloper to stay, amidst a group of vividly unhappy vacationers sharing a villa on the French Riviera. That intruder, Kitty Finch, makes her entrance as a mistaken dead body in the villa swimming pool. She proceeds via wiles combining Edie Sedgwick, Sylvia Plath and a mermaid to seduce or unsettle all of poet Joe Jacobs, his war correspondent wife Isabel, their teenaged daughter Nina, the Jacobs’ guests Mitchell and Laura, villa house staff Jurgen and elderly villa neighbour Dr. Madeleine Sheridan.
That Kitty claims to be, among many things, a botanist – albeit one with a particular fascination for beautiful, poisonous plants – fits perversely well with the hothouse confluence of characters with relationship, financial, emotional and psychological problems, and problems relative in some cases to lack or excess of age and experience. She also claims to be a poet, obsessed with getting Jacobs to read one poem of hers that could hold something potent and revelatory for both of them – and how that is or isn’t revealed is also perverse.
For a book so lush in imagery – veering from plants and foliage to weaponry to water to real and toy animals – the overall effect of the book is still spare and spacious. There is much room to wonder what just happened and what will happen next between various troubled couplings and encounters, most of them provoked directly or indirectly by that maybe uninvited, maybe dangerously desired guest with the name combining predator and prey.
You won’t know until the very end if any of this largely unsympathetic but still fascinating cast of characters manage to swim home safely. As the story and voices linger long after you’ve finished this slim novel, you’ll continue to wonder if, in fact, you assessed correctly who did swim home … and even what is home, and if perhaps some found it instead by letting go and slipping under the surface.
Thank you to House of Anansi Press for providing an advance copy of Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy.
September 20, 2012
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Deborah Levy speaks to a Waterstones interviewer at Waterstones Piccadilly bookstore about her story, Black Vodka, and novel, Swimming Home.