Sunday, 14 October 2012

Book Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Original jacket
'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.'

For lovers of witty, arresting, unsettling prose – prose that reads like the best poetry - Swimming Home is a rare delight. The marriage of unashamedly literary and eminently readable books has become a hallmark of And Other Stories (the independent publishers of this novel) and Swimming Home is another masterpiece. From this first sentence, which introduces the feel of lives running out of control, of impending danger and lust and transformation, Deborah Levy produces a short page-turning cliff-hanger of rare brilliance.

On the surface, Swimming Home is riddled with clichés in both characters and plot – it is essentially a family drama populated by wealthy, artistically inclined characters whose lives are falling apart until the arrival of a mysterious stranger who throws everything into chaos – yet Levy takes these familiar elements and crafts them into something new. There is barely a sentence that didn’t produce some physical reaction in me as I read it. The writing is a firework spectacular. You feel the words, engage with them emotionally and sensually as well as intellectually. They rise around you, come alive in your mind, transport you to new and unexpected places. Deborah Levy creates a hallucinatory dreamscape of colours and symbols and metaphors, a psychoanalysts playground where every word, image, and object is significant and post-Freudian ideas of sex and death drive the plot forward. Swimming Home is a concentrated study of psychological states, of perceptions of depression and the impact diagnosis and medication can have on lives.

The Jacobs – celebrated poet Joe, war-correspondent Isobel, and their 14 year-old daughter only-daughter Nina – are holidaying in the south of France with Isobel’s friend Laura and her husband Mitchell. The atmosphere is taught and competitive, barely buried marital strife, infidelity, financial concerns, and work-life inequalities rife amongst the adults. It looks like being a long summer, particularly for Nina. That is, until they wake one morning to find Kitty Finch floating naked in their pool, red hair and green nails, arms pointing ahead like a starfish, like a superhero. Marshall mistakes her for a bear. She has confused her booking dates. Isobel invites her to stay. The mermaid steps out of the water to disrupt their plans and guide them through their summer. She is a poet and she is quirky, fun, psychologically unstable. She quickly becomes the centrifugal force around whom the other characters circle.

'Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gasses seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.'

Yet Kitty is no femme fatal; she is as vulnerable as they are, entranced by the poet she has read and the words he has given her. She and Joe are united by their experience of depression and antidepressants. ‘Give me your history and I will give you something to take it away’, he has written about his experiences of medication as a teenager. There is a theme here, between knowledge and forgetting; the amnesia that Joe and Kitty resent is contrasted with longing to forget that Isobel as a war-correspondent exposed to knowledge of the bleakest things in life dreams of. The reader quickly realises that there will be things learned on this holiday that will change things for everyone.

Levy borrows a technique from Emily Bronte in telling a tale about women through the façade of a male central character. The women are not always likeable, but they are powerful, compelling and determine their own stories, act in their own ways, without translation by male sensibility. Gender roles aren’t simple. On the surface, Joe is a typically serially unfaithful bipolar poet, yet he also plays the role of sole parent to Nina when Isobel is away. The women are enigmatic, the scope of behaviours available to them broader than in many novels.

Readers will feel all sorts of artistic spirits in the background – Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Arthur Miller plays, van Gogh paintings, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca were just some of those that arose for me – but Swimming Home owes its compelling brilliance to the fearsome intellect and lyrical prowess of its author.  There is little to criticise here. That it was turned down by a host of mainstream publishers for being too literary for a tough economic climate says much about the uncertain, fearful, artistically confused publishing world of the moment, and their – sometimes - lack of faith in readers. I'm delighted that the Booker Prize has reflected the rise of exciting small publishers in its shortlist for 2012.

Swimming Home is an elliptical novel. Time shifts and disorientates, narrative focus moves between characters. Scenes and motifs repeat and evolve. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely,’ Kitty says on multiple occasions. ‘But you did not get home safely. You did not get home at all.’

Liminality dominates. Swimming Home is perilous, teetering on the brink of dream and wakefulness, of metaphor and literal, of medicated health and unmedicated madness, of childhood and adulthood, of life and death. Water is both a refuge and a prison. Dive in, submerge yourself, and feel it surround you.

Swimming Home was originally published by And Other Stories in October 2011. ISBN 9781908276025. 
Since Booker longlisting, it has been republished to meet demand by And Other Stories and Faber & Faber. ISBN 9780571299607, 176pp.

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