A Novel by Deborah Levy
2012 / 157 Pages
The Setup: Swimming Home is a subversive page-turner, a merciless gaze at the insidious harm that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people. Set in a summer villa, the story is tautly structured, taking place over a single week in which a group of beautiful, flawed tourists in the French Riviera come loose at the seams. (From the hardcover edition)
This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/26/2012
Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, her first novel in fifteen years, may be the shortest of the booker dozen in terms of page count, but surprisingly it packs one heck of literary of punch in this short amount of space. Dare I say it’s reminiscent in this regard to another very recent thought-provoking Booker winner?
Diving head first into Swimming Home, the first thing one encounters is the fairly vanilla, rather uninspired idea of a family on vacation who are interrupted by an unexpected guest, but gratefully Levy quickly turns this idea inside out, twisting the plot and the players involved in interesting and unexpected ways.
Depression is the order of the day and each of the main characters seem to be dealing with their own complex set of deeply seeded emotional issues that were present long before Kitty Finch, the aforementioned uninvited house guest, makes her appearance on the scene in the opening pages of the novel. Kitty serves as the unbalanced, unpredictable fire starter, a catalyst for change that deftly makes those around her accept the true realities of their most basic desires. She also serves as the novel’s centerpiece as the reader tries to work out the answer to the rather perplexing question of why Isabella, wife of the famous poet Joe, renters of the vacation villa in France, has graciously offered to allow the interloping Kitty Finch to stay in the guest quarters when it’s clearly obvious from the get go that she wants nothing to do with the woman.
While the reader is hard at work chewing on what Isabella’s motivation is, before their eyes the couple’s young daughter Nina blossoms into womanhood. As a male I can only imagine that this momentous occasion in a young woman’s life is filled with a wide range of difficult emotions, but I imagine even more so for Nina who is surrounded by no strong, positive female role models. After starting her first period in the middle of the night, and with no one else she feels comfortable confiding in, the teenager seeks the aid not of her mother or her mother’s friend, but instead turns to the crazy house guest for help in dealing her with her body’s changes.
Is Kitty Finch crazy though? Those staying at the villa and their elderly neighbor certainly seem to think so, though strangely none of them make a concerted effort to evict her from their lives. When Kitty first appears she sells them all a story about miscommunication, when in fact her decision to be in that place at that time was a well calculated maneuver. She’s got a “thing” for the famous poet Joe. Call it a spiritual connection if you will. She’s written a poem that she wants him to read and give his opinion on. For his part Joe’s not stupid, and he thinks that he’s easily seen through Kitty as just another in a long line of aspiring writers clamoring for his guidance, wisdom, and approval. When he finally reads the poem she’s written though he realizes that he miscalculated her intentions and he’s not quite sure that he’s ready to face the truth behind what her words reveal. He lies to her about reading the poem in order to prolong what he feels will be the ultimate outcome of their inevitable discussion.
Fed up with Joe’s procrastination, Nina seeks out the poem and reads it for herself. She’s horrified by what she’s discovered and she tries her best to alert those around her to what she believes the situation to be, but they simply dismiss her suggestions as non-factual, even when she unveils them smack in one of the book’s most highly charged, insane moments of unpredictable tension.
The closing sections of Swimming Home are tough to swallow as the reader finds themselves transfixed by what Levy has managed to accomplish. She calls into question everything they’ve read and believed up to that point as she expertly pulls back the curtain to reveal the much larger, sadder truth that has been lurking off in the shadows the entire time.
In the end almost everyone gets exactly what they wanted, which of course isn’t even remotely close to what they actually needed and for this group of dysfunctional characters, and perhaps for the reader as well, life will never be quite the same again.