It’s a joy to find Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home on the Man Booker longlist, not because I had marked it down as one of the books of the year (I hadn’t read it before the list was announced, though had got as far as owning it), but because Levy seems to be a genuinely interesting writer who has been working below the radar (okay, my radar) for a number of years now (first novel: 1986)who has teamed up with an exciting new publisher to produce something that deserves the wider attention. To put it another way, she’s neither an established name who doesn’t need the publicity or a one hit wonder landed lucky with their first novel.
But this isn’t about Man Booker, it’s about Swimming Home. In many ways, it’s a typically English novel about some nice middle class people who go on holiday (and it goes a bit wrong). There’s a poet (Joe Jacobs) married to a war journalist (Isabel) with their neglected teenage daughter (Nina), sharing a villa with a couple they don’t even like (Mitchell and Laura) with money worries. A retired doctor (Madeleine Sheridan) watches from a nearby balcony. Luckily the back cover (and Tom McCarthy’s introduction) tells us this is subversive (meaning you won’t sympathise with any of the characters) and Levy throws a damaged young woman into the mix, Kitty Finch – even her name suggests she is at war with herself. Finch is there as a result of an obsession (connection she would probably say – she feels his poems are ‘conversations’ with her) with Joe and quickly presents him with a poem of her own she wants him to read. Her entrance is dramatic – her naked body floating in the pool when the holiday-makers arrive – a scene that will be echoed in the novel’s conclusion. Her nudity is used throughout to unsettle.
It seems Isabel allows Kitty to stay in the hope Joe will sleep with her and give her the final excuse she needs to leave him. Her effect, however, is even more profound – she also shares with Joe a history of depression (which he has written about in his poetry) and has recently stopped her medication:
“…his teenaged years had been tranquilised into a one-season pharmaceutical mist. Or as he had suggested in his most famous poem, now translated into twenty-three languages: a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.’”
As well as asserting the novel’s subversive tag, the blurb also claims it provides ‘a merciless gaze at the insidious harm that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people.’ If by ‘merciless’ it means that all the characters are there to be laughed at, then that is certainly true and for those who like their humour cruel (sorry, dark) there is plenty to be had here. The characters, however, veer too much towards satire to reveal much about the nature of depression. If not satirical, Joe’s history (parents killed in the Holocaust) seems a lazy reason to explain his unhappiness; similarly the influence of numerous war zones on Isabel seems phoned in from other novels. Conversely, Kitty’s background in botany seems to be an attempt to add a veneer of character onto her madness. Her effect on Joe is largely ‘explained’ through gaps in the narrative.
Having said that, the novel is skilfully written, with Levy slipping from character to character and unsettling the reader the way the characters feel unsettled (‘FFF,’ as Joe would say). It is also tightly structured and reads lightly like a comedy of manners, keeping its darker side largely hidden until the reader looks back – the very thing the novel warns against.