Tuesday 2 October 2012

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

'all my etc'

To have been so intimate with Kitty Flinch had been a pressure, 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.'

I really meant to read this some time ago. When I saw details of a novel with an intro from Tom McCarthy my ears pricked up. Then came a glowing review from Mr Self in the Guardian. I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until its Booker long-listing that I finally took the plunge and how frustrating not to have read and enjoyed it sooner. What would have been even cooler than reading it nice and early, before the other plaudits arrived, would have been to be amongst the names printed within the cover as supporters who brought the novel to publication. Publisher And Other Stories uses a subscription model you see, helping to show that there is a market and support for a title before it goes into print, and each of those subscribers will see their name printed at the back of the titles they have helped bring into being. That must pretty good, even more so now that the book has been short-listed too.

Anyway, before I begin to sound like a pitch for subscribers (click here for details!) let's look at the book itself. I'm thrilled to see it on the Booker list, not just as a triumph for small independent publishers but also to show that dark and challenging fiction has a place in the running for a prize that lost some of its lustre last year with the sniping about readability. In fact with a shortlist like this year's one wonders if there will still be so much clamour for the new Literature Prize. Swimming Home is the perfect rebuttal because its set up could so easily herald the kind of middle-class fare that encourages so much sniping at literature prizes and 'literary' fiction in general. Two families holiday at a villa in the hills above Nice. Joe and Isabel Jacobs are there with their 14 year-old daughter Nina. Joe is a poet, Isabel a war reporter. Their friends Mitchell and Laura run a failing shop in Euston that sells primitive weapons and African jewellery. It all sounds cosy enough but we are unseated immediately as the Jacobs come out to the pool ('more like a pond') and think they see something floating in the deep end, Joe wondering if it's a bear. This is Kitty Finch who is actually swimming naked underwater, an interloper in their midst who claims to be there due to a mix up with dates and who insinuates herself into the family's holiday. I was reminded of Ali Smith's The Accidental in which Amber was the uninvited guest on another middle-class holiday. The two books don't have much in common beyond that, but that sense of unease and the way in which a stranger can have a devastating impact on a family unit was all too familiar.

Kitty is an extraordinary creation and I found it fascinating the way a female novelist approached this provocateur in comparison to how I fear a male novelist would handle things. Yes, standing next to her 'was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating' and yes, she spends large parts of the book it would seem with very little clothes on (this same technique is often on display in British theatre where productions of new plays force some poor kid out of drama school to parade around with it all out on show because that's the only way to demonstrate youthful sexual allure, or temptation, or something or other) but whilst we might expect her allure to come from being some perfect, pert ingenue she is only ever 'almost pretty, with her narrow waist and long hair glowing in the dark, but ragged too, not far off someone begging outside a train station holding up a homeless and hungry sign.'

She had a north London accent. Her front teeth were crooked. When she wasn't stammering and blushing she looked like she'd been sculpted from wax in a dark workshop in Venice. If she was a botanist she obviously did not spend much time outside. Whoever had made her was clever. She could swim and cry and blush and say things like 'hogged it.'

These and other descriptions of her are so effective in their detail and the way in which they demonstrate how difficult the Jacobs and the other residents find dealing with her. She always seems dangerous in some way and yet we can never quite work out why. This is perhaps due to the opening page (part of which I quoted at the top of this post), a scene on a mountain road with Kitty and Joe in a car together, a scene that returns later in the book, sightly altered, taking on the feel of a dream. The reader always senses that proceedings could well career off the road and down the side of the mountain.

Joe and Isabel's marriage is in trouble and Kitty could well be the catalyst to blow things apart. Is this why Isabel insists that she stay rather than leave at the beginning of the novel? She couldn't possibly know that Kitty is in fact there because she is a huge fan of Joe's poetry and that she has brought a poem of her own, whose title is what lends this novel its own, for him to read. This writing link is so strong that Joe is convinced he can hear lines of his own poetry in what Kitty says to him. Kitty and Joe are also linked by their respective depressions, Joe having written famously about his treatment and Kitty having just come off her own medication, Seroxat. Joe puts off reading her poem for as long as he can but finally relents (we will read only snatches of it, with its repeated use of 'etc') and his reaction comes close to describing the effect of reading the novel.

To accept her language was to accept that she held him, her reader, in great esteem. He was being asked to make something of it and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said.

There is so much hidden under the surface of the writing, just as Kitty herself was disguised under the surface of the pool when they arrived, things are alluded to, imagery and symbols are potent and interesting and each of the characters is expertly suggested by pitch-perfect detail. For the young daughter Nina this is a revolutionary moment. Fully aware of the fragile nature of her parent's marriage she is also undergoing her own transformation from child to adult and it is Kitty who assumes the role of mentor whilst the parents are distracted when Nina has her first period. In a wonderfully written scene Kitty grabs her hand and runs with her outside to the pool.

Nina could see her own shadow in the pool and in the sky at the same time. She was tall and long, there was no end to her and no beginning, her body stretched out and vast. She wanted to swim and when Kitty insisted it didn't matter about the blood, she dared herself to take off the bikini and be naked, watching her twin shadow untie the straps more bravely than the real-sized Nina actually felt. She finally jumped into the pool and hid herself in the blanket of leaves that floated in the water, not sure what to do with her new body because it was morphing into something alien and perplexing to her.

The pool is one of the most obvious symbols in the novel but what of its title and that wish as stated by Kitty to get home safely? This is where the novel feels really subversive, taking the middle-class holiday and jeopardising the ability to even escape from it unscathed. Joe, as we have learned early on, has an anglicised name, having fled occupied Poland at the age of five thus committing himself not only to 'leave no trace or trail of his existence' but also of course never to return home.

That was what his father had told him. You cannot come home. This was not something possible to know but he had to know it all the same.

A man who can never really return home, a wife hardened by reporting from fields of conflict, a daughter on the cusp of womanhood and a stranger with mixed motives. This is about as far from the comforting holiday read we might have expected before opening the cover and that is what makes the book so thrilling to read. Dark, dangerous and unknowable, this novel, like the pool at its centre with its covering of fallen leaves has hidden depths and dangers that might just make it the dark horse on this year's Booker list. I certainly hope so because it is easily my favourite of the shortlisted titles I've read.


Anonymous,  29 December 2012 at 12:34  

I too loved this book Will, you have hit the nail on the head when you mention the tension and feeling of more underlying the words that Levy uses than initially meets the eye. I know some people found this to be a negative and that they couldn't paint a full picture, I thought the gaps left the reader a huge amount to go and create off stage and hinted at darknesses too. I loved it.

William Rycroft 1 January 2013 at 12:39  

Absolutely Simon, that sense of more underneath is something that could be both positive and negative. I loved it personally but I can also see why others wouldn't and also wonder whether it was that factor that didn't fare well with the repeated readings necessary in choosing a winner for the Booker. Just a thought.

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