Swimming Home, Deborah Levy, Faber, RRP£7.99, 160 pages
Swimming Home is a disquieting meditation on power, memory and madness masquerading as a holiday novel. First published last year by the small imprint And Other Stories, and now being co-published with Faber, the novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize.
Levy is an influential avant-garde author, so it’s startling to find this is something close to a detective story, set around a middle-class family’s summer retreat in the south of France. Initial surprise at this shift in the author’s register is steadily displaced by delight at Levy’s stealthy subversion of her adopted genre, and the ultimate collapse of formulaic narrative into volatile, fraught psychodrama.
Levy weaves grand themes into a conventional domestic plot by yoking her leading players to histories of conflict and exile. Joe Jacobs is a celebrated poet, born in Europe but evacuated to England as a child to escape the Holocaust that killed his parents. He is holidaying with his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, their teenaged daughter Nina, and the Jacobs’ married friends, Mitchell and Laura. The party arrives at its villa to discover a naked woman in the pool, swimming underwater, “both arms stretched out like a starfish, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body”.
This is the conventional narrative apparatus that Levy undermines through the introduction of a disruptive element in the person of Kitty Finch, the beautiful waif in the pool.
Kitty, as her dramatic entrance attests, occupies the ragged space between life and death reserved for potential suicides. Obsessed with Joe, and idolised by the impressionable Nina, Kitty is a threat. Her seductive menace tears the fabric of the lives she touches, through which spill uncoordinated, self-destructive instincts. Kitty is repeatedly referred to as a threshold to our hidden instincts, a “window waiting to be climbed through”.
Each of the novel’s central characters is troubled by the disjuncture of their private and public selves. Isabel appears to others as the fearless journalist, yet frets over her competence as a mother. After once having told his daughter that if she finds God she “is probably having a nervous breakdown”, Joe is later discovered on his knees at a church praying for respite from desire. Mitchell, a man of oafish bluster, is troubled by dark dreams and impending bankruptcy. The exception to this insecurity is Kitty, who seems to cherish the inconsistencies of her personality. Her unwillingness to paper over the cracks is both admirable and frightening. As Isabel says: “it was impossible to believe that someone did not want to be saved from their incoherence”.
Removed from the central stage is Madeleine, an elderly neighbour who watches the drama unfold from her “hidden balcony” and occasionally intervenes in the action. Hers is one of the many perspectives from which the drama can be viewed, each of them supporting a different interpretation. This pervading impression of fracture is reinforced by the regular resurgence of motifs, patterns and symbols into the novel’s superficially straightforward chronology. Nina admits that, “I have never got a grip on where the past begins or where it ends” and the past visits the present in dreams, while future events are prefigured by reference and allusion. Identifying, on rereading, the signs embedded in the story is one of Swimming Home’s many pleasures.
Levy’s book is also an ambitious effort to reconcile the themes of continental modernism and the British realist tradition. Writing in S/Z, Barthes identifies the “opening enigma” as a central plank in the archetypal realist novel. Swimming Home uses this plot mechanism, but does not provide the resolution that constitutes closure and the restitution of normality. It does not spoil the book’s plot to disclose that the natural order can never here be restored to harmony.
Swimming Home is a beautiful, delicate book underpinned by a complexity that only reveals itself slowly to the reader.