Sunday 20 January 2013

Swimming Home

Alongside the TBR Pile Challenge which runs all year and has strict conditions, I am also partaking in the TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by 'Ready When You Are C.B.' This one runs from 1st January to 1st April and involves only reading stuff from your TBR pile, but there are no particular provisions and can include books you just have hanging around waiting, even ones bought recently, and I have also included books that are on my library reserve list.
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy has been much talked about since it's inclusion on the Booker shortlist last year and I waited in quite a queue to get it from the library. I like the fact that this book is published by a small press called And Other Stories, and they produce their books partly by subscription from the reading public.

This is unabashed literary fiction; a group of people staying in a villa find their relationships disrupted by the arrival of a young woman, but she really just tips the balance in an already precarious situation. So we have this bunch of people taking a holiday together, Joe and Isabel and their daughter Nina, and their friends Laura and Mitchell. Well, I say their friends, Laura is Isabel's friend, old friend with whom she no longer seems to have much in common except a shared past. Mitchell seems to despise Joe, in fact treats almost everyone with contempt. Nina is struggling with adolescence and a fraught relationship with her mother who is a journalist. But just as Isabel runs away from things at home, travelling the world as a foreign correspondent, equally Joe hides behind his poetry, it is always a means to demand to be left alone. Their shenanigans around the pool are overseen by the elderly Madeleine Sheridan, who watches from the neighbouring balcony. Kitty Finch is the untamed young woman who they find in their swimming pool, and, invited by Isabel to stay in the spare room, she begins to unravel their carefully constructed defences. She is the one person we don't really get to know as we watch the reaction of the others around her to her slightly odd behaviour. I felt that there was something a little sinister about her and couldn't help thinking that the denouement of the story was something she deliberately manipulated.

It is a beautifully written book; as I have found before, it is all about writing that you barely notice. Try this for an example of how to avoid using a cliché and to tell us something subtle about another character:
"Kitty Finch's eyes were grey like the tinted windows of Mitchell's hire car, a Mercedes, parked on the gravel at the front of the villa." (p.8)

Wonderful subtle images:
"Claude could hear the voice of Rita Dwighter fall out of the receiver and disappear into the clouds of hashish smoke." (p.109)
"As they strolled down the the Promenade des Anglaise in the silver light of the late afternoon, it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice." (p.127)
"He wanted to close down like  Mitchell and Laura's shop in Euston. Everything that was open must close. His eyes. His mouth. His nostrils. His ears that could still hear things." (p.145-6)

Here the relationship between Isabel and Joe is unravelling:
"She had not so much distanced herself from him as moved out to another neighbourhood altogether." (p.104)

Although it was a good novel it left me a bit cold. I found I did not care enough about the characters, they were all a little self obsessed, except Jurgen, the German hippy who is caretaker for the villas, who has a genuine fondness for Kitty. You feel that without Kitty as a catalyst they might all have continued along their narrow paths failing to acknowledge their problems. So when Joe spills this diatribe you feel quite pleased to finally see one of them reacting:

"I can't stand the DEPRESSED. It's like a job, it's the only thing they work hard at. Oh good my depression is very well today. Oh good today I have another mysterious symptom and will have another one tomorrow. The DEPRESSED are full of hate and bile and when they are not having panic attacks they are writing poems. What do they want their poems to DO? Their depression is the most VITAL thing about them. Their poems are threats. ALWAYS threats. There is no sensation that is keener or more active that their pain." (p.93)

It's as if he is angry at Kitty for daring to demand something from him that he is incapable of asking for. He feigns annoyance when people ask him for his opinion about their poems when really he is flattered by it. It's as if he wants the adulation without the responsibility it brings. While I didn't like him much I did like the portrayal of his relationship with Nina, father and daughter drawn close by the absence of Isabel, and in some ways the story is essentially about them. It reminded me rather too much of The Accidental by Ali Smith which I felt was a more interesting book. When books have the same theme you can't help but compare. But I don't want to detract from the lovely writing and she is certainly a writer I might seek out again.


  1. I always find literary fiction dull. The writing may be good, but if the story isn't, or the characters aren't, then it's no good and I put it down and read something else.

  2. In one sense I agree with you, but without good writing even a good story can be not worth reading. I find I need the right balance to really enjoy a book and this one probably did emphasise the writing over the story just a little too much.
    thanks for your thoughts


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