‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy

Swimming_Home

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 127 pages; 2012.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the kind of short, sharp novel that may make you think twice about going on holiday with family friends.

A holiday in France

The story takes place across eight days in July 1994. The setting is the Alpes-Maritimes, France, where two English families share a holiday villa.  War correspondent Isabel Jacobs, her husband Joe — a celebrated poet — and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, are joined by long-time friends, Mitchell and Laura, who run a shop in Euston, London.

When the five arrive at the villa they discover a body floating in the deep end of the swimming pool. They initially mistake it for a bear, but it turns out to be a young woman called Kitty French, who has exceedingly long hair.

Kitty seems to think she has a booking at the villa, too, but there’s been a mix-up with the rental dates. All the local hotels are booked up, so Isabel offers her the spare room. This vague but kind invitation will end up having far-reaching repercussions for everyone.

Deceptive appearances

There are two other characters — Jurgen, the German caretaker, and Madeleine Sheridan, the next-door neighbour — who are both crucial to the plot, because they have had past experiences with Kitty.

Of course Kitty is not all that she seems (indeed, no-one in this novella is what they seem to be when you first meet them). She tells everyone she is a botanist, but she also writes poetry and her arrival at the villa is part of a charade to meet Joe, whom she has long admired.

It is no plot spoiler to reveal that she ends up having sex with him — we find this out on page one as the pair drive through the night, two hours after their consummation in the Hotel Negresco.

A stranger’s arrival

Levy has taken an old formulaic plot — that of the stranger who arrives unannounced to disrupt a group dynamic — but given it an original twist. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which does something similar and which was also shortlisted for the Booker — in 2005.)

It’s not an emotional book — although it does have a shock ending — but more an intellectual one, because there’s quite a lot to mull over and think about. (For instance, is Kitty’s poem that she wants Joe to read, really a poem — or a suicide note?)

And while the characters are not particularly fleshed out — indeed Laura seems to disappear not long after she’s been introduced and Mitchell doesn’t fare much better — they are deeply intriguing. All have closely guarded secrets, and part of the joy of reading Swimming Home is discovering these as Levy shifts her perceptive eye from character to character.

A book to read twice?

I rather suspect that this is a book that demands a second reading. Levy’s prose and the book’s structure is so deft and tight, that the narrative zips along at a furious pace. Occasionally, I wondered if I might have missed something and went back and reread pages — just to make sure.

In a way, this is a novel of contradictions: it’s dry and dispassionate throughout, but the ending is very moving and leaves one feeling particularly unnerved; the writing is taut and sparse, but it feels lyrical and Levy can capture a mood or scene in just a few words (“it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice”); the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling.

While I feel kind of ambivalent about the book — I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either — I rather suspect the Man Booker judges may think differently. The winning novel — and it will probably be this one — is named on October 16.

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17 thoughts on “‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy

  1. I had the same reaction as you (i.e.I might need to read this a second time) when I read the book a few weeks back. I’ll admit that since then — and having read a fair bit of comment about it in the interim — that desire has slipped. I characterized the book as a good “sketch” in my review and I continue to think that — a very interesting exercise, but not much more.
    Which means that I don’t think it will win the Booker — I need to read a couple more before deciding which I think will.

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  2. To be honest, Im being a little facetious, because I dont have much of a track record in selecting Booker winners. That said, I do think theres something kind of intellectual about this book that may well appeal to the judges…

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  3. I am yet to read Umbrella, although I do have a copy here. I suspect I wont have time to read it before the announcement, which may well indicate that it will win!

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  4. I admit it was your review or, more specifically, your comment in response to mine underneath your review that made me intrigued to read this one. I ended up making a spur-of-the-moment purchase a week or so ago, and while I dont regret reading this, I am at a loss as to why it has garnered so much critical acclaim. Its good, but is it really THAT good?

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  5. I seem to be out on a limb here when I say that I really loved this book. I thought it was deceptively simple and while initially I felt there was no emotional punch my mind changed over time. Especially with the character of young Nina.
    I think it is, as Kevin says, a ‘sketch’ kind of book yet there is enough there for you to make up the rest of the picture without the author holding your hand or doing all the work – and I really admired it all the more for that.

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  6. Interesting review Kim. I was due to get the book from my co-worker when she finished. I am surprised it was a fairly short book so it wouldn’t hurt to know what you meant by it being clever. I’ll soon know. The man booker prize have selected some surprising winners I would say, so I am not surprise it this one won.

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  7. As you know, Simon, I love books where the author doesn’t spell things out for you… but this one wasn’t as effective, perhaps because there were too many characters and, in some ways, too much stuff going on. But as I said above, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. I guess I just felt luke warm about it.

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  8. Be interesting to see what you make of it JoV. It’s certainly a quick read, so even if you don’t fall in love with it, you won’t have wasted weeks of reading time on it! The benefit of short books, I guess.

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  9. I agree that the effect of this book grows over time and revisiting, its not so easy to judge on a first reading, which may be how it has risen to be shortlisted.
    It is the only book on the short-list I have read, and from the reviews I have read this and Umbrella seem to be garnering the most attention. Whether that is a sign of what the judges might be considering I don’t know. Perhaps not, since book bloggers are being such bad press by the judge, what do we know after all. 🙂

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  10. I broadly agree with you. I thought the book was superbly written, but it left me feeling a little empty. That said, I also understand why it’s on the Booker shortlist, and while I’d love ‘Narcopolis’ to win most of all, I’d also be pleased if this made it, if only as a reward for the excellent ‘And Other Stories’ output over the past couple of years or so..

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  11. Agree with you re: And Other Stories. I really admire what they have been doing, so it’s nice to see their efforts being rewarded with this shortlisting.
    I’ve not read Narcopolis, but I have read two others from the list — The Lighthouse and The Gardens of Mist — and if I get my act together I may well review them before the winner is announced next week!

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