Review: Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

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Deborah Levy’s short but imposing novel explores the insidious effects of depression on a seemingly stable family, holidaying in the French Riviera for a week in 1994, and on a mysterious guest, Kitty, who appears, floating in their swimming pool, on the first day.

Joe, husband to Isabel and father of Nina, is a poet by profession. He is immediately taken in by the beautiful young Kitty with her radiant red hair unfurling in the water. Both Joe and Kitty are emotionally dysfunctional, Kitty is even mentally unwell. They are drawn together by their poetry.

Swimming Home is deceptive. What appears as merely a rather unsettling affair between Kitty and Joe in an effort to numb the disappointment of their own lives, suddenly shifts to a fast-paced descent into a psychologically disturbing turn of events.

I found it extremely difficult to relate to any of the characters, or even to feel like they could ever be real people. The whole plot is suffused with an almost lyrical and oneiric tone that suspends realism. This, combined with Levy’s floundering efforts to incorporate the theme of an existential crisis for her characters, makes it altogether arduous to take the book seriously at all.

The same can be said of it’s elliptical style which is evocative of an unsuccessful cross between Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and T S Eliot’s Wasteland. It is rendered absurd when almost every other word in the book is ‘Yeah’.

The narrative is interspersed with strange extracts from a poem written by Kitty, sometimes placed in diagonal lines across the page, and the chapter headings are another annoyingly forced attempt to make the book seem intriguing, with titles such as ‘Body Electric’, ‘Manners’, and ‘Spirited Away’. Moreover, an unnecessary last chapter written from the perspective of Nina, seventeen years on, attempts a last stab at symbolism and interesting form. 

Although I myself have misgivings about the book, it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012, and has scintillating reviews. The Daily Telegraph has called it ‘an intelligent, pulsating literary beast’, and the Literary Review opines that Levy ‘reveals a more urgent world humming with symbols’.

It is a book dependent on each reader’s taste, and I would recommend it despite my fault-finding, simply for the fun of a very critical read that succeeds in making you feel more intelligent than you really are and deludes you into thinking you could write much better.

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