Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

Purchased from the Book Depository

Two English couples have taken a lease on a French Riviera villa outside Nice for the summer. Joe and Isabel Jacobs are the dominant pair — he is a poet of some reknown (his readers know him by his initials and only his wife calls him Jozef) and she is a war correspondent. Mitchell and Laura are friends who run a shop in Euston that sells international exotica — its main recent claim to fame is regular vandalism and they fully expect the windows to be smashed when they return. The villa party is completed by fourteen-year-old Nina Jacobs, an aneroxic adolescent who is starting to discover some of the mysteries of adulthood.

The group acquires an additional member as Swimming Home proper opens:

The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved from stone by a family of Italian stonecutters living in the Antibes. The body was floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade.

‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water. He could feel the sun burning into the shirt his Hindu tailer had made for him from a row of raw silk. His back was on fire. Even the roads were melting in the July heatwave.

It is not a bear — that impression was the result of a newspaper article the group had read the previous day about a bear that wandered down the Los Angeles hills into a Hollywood actor’s pool. The floating body is the naked Kitty Finch — she knows the owner of the villa and thought she had a reservation to stay there and had jumped into the pool to cool off. She gets out and finds her sundress, the group converses for a bit and Isabel invites her to stay in the spare bedroom for a few days until a hotel room is available.

Except…

Kitty is a botanist, but she is also a poet. And she has tracked Joe to the villa because she wants his impression of her poem, Swimming Home — allegedly about her greatest desire (to see the poppy fields in Pakistan), but really her notion of a private conversation with Joe himself. To complete the picture, Kitty has depression issues and has abandoned her meds.

Joe is used to this:

Joe stopped walking. So that was why she was here.

Young women who followed him about and wanted him to read their poetry, and he was now convinced she was one of them, always started by telling him they’d written a poem about something extraordinary. They walked side by side, flattening a path through long grass. He waited for her to speak, to make her request, to say how influenced by his books she was, to explain how she’d managed to track him down, and then she would ask would he mind, did he have time, would he be so kind as to please, please read her small effort inspired by himself.

The reader already knows how this will turn out. In a short prologue, author Levy has introduced us to Kitty driving across the French landscape with a passenger who says ‘Why don’t you pack a ruck sack and see the poppy fields in Pakistan like you said you wanted to?’ The pair have spent the day in the luxurious Hotel Negresco and are now contemplating the price:

To have been so intimate with Kitty Finch had been a pleasure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

(Aside: That is not the only spoiler in the novel. The version that I read from publisher And Other Stories also features an enthusiastic introduction from author Tom McCarthy which pretty much gives away the whole “plot”. If you hate spoilers, avoid the introduction — but this is a modernist novel and plot doesn’t really count anyway. Personally, I found McCarthy’s thoughts useful, but forewarned is forearmed.)

The strength of Swimming Home is also its greatest weakness. The characters that Levy gives us all have elements of potential interest, but she deliberately leaves them woefully incomplete, demanding that the reader fill in the gaps. They are all narcissists (self-pre-occupied is perhaps a better, more neutral description) concerned with their own desires — but again the author expects the reader to complete the picture. Symbols abound but the obvious is often left overlooked — for example, we get a few excerpts from Kitty’s poem but never see the whole thing. Levy sketches the outline of the “what” but the “why” and often even “how” are left ambiguous.

“Sketch”, in fact, is the perfect description for this novel. Landscape artists (at least the great Canadian ones) spend their summer in the wilderness making paint-box sized sketches — in the winter months in the studio, they develop some of these images into much broader, more complete canvasses. In no way does that diminish the value of the “sketch” (the Group of Seven ones are selling for upwards of $1 million some decades on), but it is just a starting point when compared to the real thing. If, as a reader, you enjoy the prospect of filling in the blank spaces, Swimming Home is a significant achievement; if, on the other hand, you want the author to take you on the broader journey, you will find it sadly lacking.

I fall in the middle on that spectrum (as, I must admit, I often do with “modernist” fiction). For me, Swimming Home was an extended novella, comfortably read in a single sitting and supplying sufficient return on the time invested. But in the final analysis, I was mainly impressed by the “writerly” aspects of the work: the way that the author deliberately left her characters as incomplete shells and carefully avoided any emotional attachment with the story. While I admired and respected the talent that was involved in doing that, it was an appreciation of the exercise — the novel itself left little impact even the next day.

This year’s Booker jury features a more literary bunch than other recent ones have and I am guessing that that authorly achievement led to Swimming Home being included on the longlist. I suspect that most readers will respond as I did: just because something is difficult to write does not necessarily make it powerful to read.

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4 Responses to “Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy”

  1. David Says:

    I think I responded to this novel in a very similar way, Kevin. I wanted to say something about the themes and the symbols you refer to, but a mere fortnight or so after reading it I find that I’m struggling to recall it in enough detail to do so.

    I love your comparison to artist’s sketches. Sketches can have a freshness that a finished work lacks, but they can feel incomplete and provisional too. But the most important thing about sketches is that they are an exercise, not an end in themselves. As my old life drawing tutor used to say “you draw to draw again”. ‘Swimming Home’ definitely has that feeling to it – a freshness and immediacy and a sense of ideas being worked through yes, but also the feeling that it is a writerly exercise and could still be redrafted and fleshed out. I like that about it in a way and can appreciate it, but it doesn’t make for a book that sticks in the mind.

    As I mentioned over on Trevor’s Booker forum, whilst I was reading this I kept being reminded of Susan Wicks’ ‘A Place to Stop’ which I read earlier in the year – another book set in France amongst British ex-pats and holidaymakers, and which is also fairly ‘modernist’ and idea-driven but which I found much more engaging and memorable, and would have preferred over this as an example of its type for the longlist.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think anyone who writes — or reads a lot — will have some appreciation for this book. And I suspect someone who writes fiction would have even more. That said, it did very much have the flavor of exercise to me; those who are more into appreciating the nuances of modernist fiction might well find more to like.

      I too kept thinking other examples of ex-pats or holiday-makers (Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow came most immediately to mind) but they were all much more story or character-driven. I’ll confess that that strikes closer to my interest, as much as I salute Levy for what she has done with this book.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    This review is very useful, Kevin. I like the ethos of the publishing company and was somewhat surprised that one of its titles made the Booker list — not because I thought the books lacked quality but because it seemed so unusual for a teeny weeny indie company to get one of its books noticed in such prominent fashion. I read Down The Rabbit Hole, another of its titles, late last year and thought it was extraordinarily good. That said, having read your review of Swimming Home, I’m not sure this one really appeals…

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Kim: I do think the publisher deserves credit for making this book available, even though my impression would be that it has limited audience appeal. Having said that, you would be one of the people whom I would say might well find it worth the effort — you read a lot and you will find that your writing and editing knowledge comes into play as it goes along.

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