Summer is drawing to a close but I am holding on with one last sizzling novel; Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home. After re-visiting Levy’s brilliant Hot Milk it reminded me how much I had wanted to read her earlier story which similarly takes place on a family vacation.
Swimming Home had me gripped right from the killer opening line:
When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.3
The book opens in the south of France where the poet Joe Jacobs is on holiday with his wife, war correspondent Isabel, their teenage daughter Nina and the couple’s friends, Mitchell and Laura. One morning the group awake to find a naked woman named Kitty Finch floating in the pool of their rented villa.
Isabel then invites Kitty to stay in the villa, to the surprise of the others. The discovery of Kitty Finch begins a chain of events as she has an unnerving effect on each of the book’s characters.
The phrase ‘what lies beneath’ was in the back of my mind whilst reading this book. Kitty is a young woman disturbed by mental health issues. In the first chapter as she lies submerged in the pool it is uncertain whether she is living or dead. When Kitty finally surfaces, she is described:
mouth open and gasping for breath, for one panicked second she (Nina) thought it was roaring like a bear.7
Kitty erupts into the novel and with her she brings up painful truths and realisations for everyone. For Isabel, Kitty’s arrival forces her to examine her relationship with her husband and daughter. Outwardly, Isabel is cool, calm and collected. Yet it becomes apparent that the persona of tough yet fragile journalist is actually neither something she wants nor understands.
Her career has taken her far away from her family in every sense of the word. I really enjoyed her character and the way Levy explores through her the pressures on modern women to fulfil a certain role. In that way, I could see traces of Hot Milk’s Sofia in Isabel.
No one dared say they minded, because the war correspondent was controlling them all. Like she had the final word or was daring them to contradict her. The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them. She knew this, but what did his wife know?47
As it transpires, the question of what goes on beneath the surface becomes more applicable to Joe Jacobs than kitty. Joe is battling his own inner demons, a symptom of his traumatic childhood escaping WW2 Poland. Kitty’s relentless pursuit of Joe and desperation for him to read her poem, also titled Swimming Home, forces him to acknowledge their similarities.
Then there is Nina, whose transition from girlhood to womanhood is paralleled with Kitty’s random and bizarre behaviour. Simmering beneath the surface, issues of money and class difference between Mitchell, Laura, Kitty and the Jacobs’ family bubble away. Each of the characters are moving towards something like home, and it is precisely that notion which Levy turns on its head.
Levy has a unique voice and ability to convey the most complicated of relationships and emotions with great brevity. In Swimming Home each word is sharp and well-chosen. I also loved the structure this book. The narrative takes place over the course of the Jacobs’ seven day holiday with each chapter dedicated to a particular day.
It is as if there is not a moment to spare during this book and this has an incredible perhaps deliberate effect of speeding the reading along. As a result, you are left feeling completely stunned by the events at the end of the narrative.
Swimming Home is literally a short book but it packs a punch.
What is on your reading list for September?