Cockroaches, etc.

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

And Other Stories, 157pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781908276025

reviewed by Sara D'Arcy

Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s first novel in 15 years and a contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a succinct yet subversive exploration of depression. Levy takes the somewhat hackneyed plot of a dysfunctional family on holiday and reassembles it to produce a strange and compelling read that unveils the significance of emotions overlooked and sentiments left unsaid.

Acclaimed British poet Joe Jacobs, his family and their debonair friends are holidaying in the French Riviera: so far so familiar. Yet their easy intimacy and initial joviality begins to show profound cracks when a stranger permeates their circle, claiming to understand them and their feelings better than they do.

The family discover the stranger in their swimming pool. It is no commonplace swimming pool encounter: the body of the intruder floats, obscured and corpse-like, in the deep end. This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Prosaic observations allude to the elegiac; the trite image of a ‘battered yellow lilo’ tapping against the edges of the pool becomes peculiar and unsettling when the lilo’s wavering ‘scatters the bees that were in various stages of dying’. The seemingly effortless repartee between characters is also tinged with an aura of the morbid:

‘Jozef thinks she’s a bear,’ Isabel Jacobs replied in her detached war-correspondent voice.

‘If it’s a bear I’m going to have to shoot it.’ Mitchell had recently purchased two antique Persian handguns at the flea market in Nice and shooting things was on his mind.

Swimming Home
takes frivolous movements and overlays them with abrupt and unexpected darkness, catching the reader off-guard with matter-of-fact allusions to death. As up-and-coming independent publisher And Other Stories states in the blurb: this novel ‘wears its darkness lightly’.

The floating and seemingly lifeless object is not a bear but a naked woman. Kitty Finch vividly emerges from the pool: a pre-Raphaelite beauty with waist-length red hair, pale and waxy skin that lies taut against her discernible rib cage and trade-mark green-painted finger tips. Kitty – an eccentric who suffers from bouts of depression – has arrived unannounced and unwelcome to pursue her obsession with the poet, Joe. Perplexingly, she is invited to stay with the family by his wife, who has surreptitious intentions of her own.

Levy’s prose is undemanding yet loaded with tension. The narrative is littered with unexpected turns of phrase and dark motifs: Kitty is described as ‘an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare’, and Levy’s swimming pool is a ‘coffin’, a ‘grave filled with water’. Like the undulations of the swimming pool, the narrative ripples with echoes of half or misremembered scenes and reiterates evocative images that weigh on the mind.

Levy tells the story of her meticulously sketched characters by percolating the narrative through subtly shifting perspectives that both enlighten and mislead the reader. At one point the narrative seeps into the interiority of a family friend, Laura, who is as anxious about her unoccupied antiques shop in London as about their unwelcome visitor:

They had come to the Alpes-Maritimes to escape from the futility of mending broken glass. She found herself struggling for words. The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway. She couldn’t be sure of this, but it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him. She cleared her throat and was about to speak her mind, but what was on her mind was so unutterable...

This narrative intrusion into Laura’s mind establishes the issues and uncertainties that saturate Swimming Home: Is it worthwhile trying to mend something that may be irretrievably broken? Is Kitty the catalyst or merely the pawn of the ensuing events? Can we ever really understand another person and their motives? If we could speak the unspeakable, would it make a difference?

The novel is fixated on simultaneously revealing and suppressing meaning. Kitty’s unruly, vortex-like poem ‘Swimming Home’ – a metafictional nod to the novel itself – is mostly composed of ‘etcs’, which force Joe to elicit meaning: ‘and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said’. Kitty’s ‘etcs’ – her secret sorrows – begin to leak into Joe’s unconscious. Joe ‘avoids talking about the poem he had kicked under his bed with the cockroaches, etc’, but it pushes him towards his suppressed memories of being a Jewish refugee and orphan during World War Two: ‘His father said goodbye, etc. His mother said goodbye, etc. He hid in a dark forest in western Poland, etc.’

Swimming Home was rejected by mainstream publishers, according to Levy, for being ‘too literary to prosper in a tough economy’. However, the novel is as emotional affective and gripping as it is erudite, and for this alone it deserves its place in the Man Booker shortlist. This slim volume is a surprising and disturbing page-turner, which captivates the reader even as it draws them down various dead ends in search for the ever elusive ‘home’ of the title. One certainty is that the disquieting ruminations and the unsettling atmosphere of the novel remain with the reader long after the close of the final pages.