Just finished reading…

21 Aug

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

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I’d never heard of Deborah Levy until I read an interview with her in the brilliant magazine, Mslexia.  Apparently, despite her writing in the 1990’s being highly acclaimed, she found it incredibly difficult to publish her most recent novel, ‘Swimming Home’ and ended up publishing it with And Other Stories, a small publishers that relies on subscribers to support their literary publications.  I was really intrigued by her story, how even someone who has received glowing reviews for her previous work should be rejected.  It serves to emphasise the sometimes cut-throat nature of publishing: it can be very hard to sell a standalone literary book to an industry that makes its big bucks from writers like JK Rowling, EL James etc.  This isn’t me being snobby by the way (perhaps a little with EL James) but I am a huge fan of JK Rowling but it is a lot harder for less commercial novelists to get their work out there.

Anyway, after reading about Levy, I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of ‘Swimming Home’ which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  I don’t know if it’s a good thing to always read reviews of a book beforehand as the majority of reviews for this on Amazon and Goodreads were rather average, with some saying it was too slow moving and about nothing really in particular.  Despite my desire to stay unbiased, I was inevitably influenced by these reviews but I’m glad I persevered and bought myself a copy.

The story is about two couples that are holidaying with each other, staying in a villa in Nice.  There, they meet a quirky girl with a penchant of walking around naked and the course of the weekend takes a rather morbid turn.  The main couple consists of a husband and wife: Joe Jacobs (a famous poet) and Isabel (a war correspondent) with their fourteen year old daughter, Nina. The other couple, Laura and Mitchell, own a shop back in London which they have decided to close and the discrepancy between the couples is interesting; sometimes knowing someone for a long time is the only thing that holds a friendship together.

Kitty is rather enamoured with the former who is used to his literary groupies and often strays in his marriage (the local cafe owner calls him ‘arsehole poet’.)  Kitty has written a poem called ‘Swimming Home’ and wants Joe to read it which he does but at first denies because it leads to feelings that he has repressed for so long resurfacing with fatal consequences.

I loved Levy’s subtle characterisation and the way in which the characters developed throughout the course of the novel.  Her use of third-person and her sharp prose, ripe with symbolism and imagery while maintaining its minimalistic essence, hooked me from the start.

I thought the handling of relationships was exquisitely done and found the details of Isabel and Joe’s broken marriage incredibly moving.  Right at the beginning of the novel, you know something is going to happen, something awful and Levy plays on this suspense with descriptions of seemingly meaningless activities or objects.  The end was sad, sadder than I had anticipated because details of Joe’s past are revealed that seem to explain how he has come to be the person he was before he died.  Isabel’s reaction to finding Joe is moving – the initial cold image we have of her begins to melt.

Nina, their daughter, is essentially the person that has to cope with this tragedy and having coped with her mother’s detachment, she already has plenty of issues she is wrestling with.  She is distanced from her mother and to a lesser extent, her father.   I found her fascination with Kitty believable – Nina is fourteen, an adolescent with the long-legged body of a woman, and sees this girl coming into her life as free, beautiful and sad (she cries in front of Nina), unlike her mother and father who are just as sad but refuse to acknowledge it openly.  During the weekend, it is telling that when she starts her period for the first time, the first person she runs to is Kitty.  She also ends up kissing Claude so this weekend seems to be a real coming-of-age period for her.

I’ll be honest – at times, I found Kitty annoying and a little frustrating (just put some clothes on, girl!) but these were minor gripes as it must be incredibly challenging to accurately portray someone with mental health issues.  And regardless, the character of Kitty works incredibly well as the enigmatic catalyst for the final disintegration of the Jacobs family although the foundations were crumbling long before.

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