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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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Just finished reading…

17 Jul

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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I’d read Atonement by McEwan before (I still can’t make myself watch the film even though I know it’s meant to be amazing) which I absolutely loved.  I tried to read Enduring Love but my sister studied it at school (and didn’t like it) and the copy that lies in our bookshelf is dotted with her notes scribbled in biro and sections covered in neon highlighter which I found far too distracting so I soon gave up.  When I worked at Waterstone’s while at school, all the booksellers got given a copy of McEwan’s novel ‘On Chesil Beach’ which I also loved.  There is something utterly compelling about the way he writes; he sets the scene so vividly and is able to build tension with an amazing level of skill.  It is perhaps the subtlety he employs when writing that is most engaging, drawing the reader in to the world he has created convincingly.

I had read in an interview that McEwan’s earlier work tended to be darker, earning him the nickname Ian McAbre.  This is definitely the case with ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ which explores themes of domestic violence, repressed homosexuality, extreme sadism and masochism.  Not for the faint-hearted.

The story follows a modern couple (Colin and Mary) on holiday in an unnamed city (but most likely Venice) who meet a strange couple (Robert and Caroline).  I guess the title alludes to the fact that after Colin and Mary meet this couple, they become more passionate themselves – spending time with the strange couple seems to ignite some lost passion in Colin and Mary who lock themselves in their hotel room for days afterwards.

All through the novella, McEwan expertly builds a sense of suspense and the story reaches its climax right at the end, which is both chilling and disturbing.  What I especially liked was that McEwan took care to exhibit Robert and Caroline’s motivations – we learn at the beginning of a childhood incident involving Robert and his sisters and his relationship with his father, which helps the reader understand how he has come to form his outmoded opinions on men and women.  Caroline is portrayed as a weak figure when Mary first sees her – a broken, fragile woman trapped in a loveless marriage.  But by the end, we learn of Caroline’s motivations, her desire to be hurt and punished, and her part in the final scene which makes the whole story even more distressing.

The sinister themes are inescapable in the novella and form much of the tension; however, McEwan’s superb illustration of the perils of a long term relationship should not be overlooked.  His poetic prose never fails to amaze me.  He illustrates the lack of passion, over-familiarity and even the sometimes parasitic nature of relationships beautifully by examining Colin and Mary’s relationship.  The quotation below seems to capture this:

This was no longer a great passion. The pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure, precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold. 

I’ve since found out that this has been made into a film starring Rupert Everett as Colin, Natasha Richardson as Mary, Christopher Walken (perennially taking the ‘creepy’ guy roles) and Helen Mirren as Caroline.  In my mind, I have clear ideas of these characters, none of which match the actors cast so I’ll probably give this a miss.. plus the end scene would just be weird to watch…