‘Swimming Home’ has been a book that I had been meaning to read for a while, because of some lovely bubbling background compliments from various trusted sources, before it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. That long listing, plus the fact I had loved a previous book by the same independent (and Arts Council funded) publisher, meant that when I saw it in the library I knew that I had to give it a whirl, and I am so glad I did as I think it will be one of my reads of the year.
I have often heard that all the best novels start with the best first lines. Now of course this isn’t always true and indeed is rather subjective to tastes however, for me personally, from the opening line of ‘Swimming Home’ I knew that this was going to be a book I would enjoy. As the novel opens from the very first line we are given a mystery, back story and darkness all in one go, which is very much what ‘Swimming Home’ is like throughout and just happens to be just my reading cup of tea.
‘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.’
As the novel opens we soon learn that Kitty Finch is going to be a character that we, and the people whose lives she forces herself into, are never going to forget. Well known, and rather well off, Poet Joe or Jozef Jacobs has come to spend summer in a villa in Nice with his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, teenage daughter Nina and family friends Mitchell and Laura to escape for a while and write. In fact everyone there is really escaping something. However one morning everyone is woken to a discovery of something floating in the pool which turns out not to be a bear, as suspected, but a naked woman and one who is very much alive, Kitty Finch. From the moment Kitty arrives the dynamic of the group is thrown and people start to do things out of character, for example Isabel invites Kitty to stay suddenly, or is it that Kitty brings out the cracks in the veneer that people use to cover their true selves which slowly start to unravel, again ironic as we soon learn that Kitty herself is unraveling rapidly forming a subconscious catalyst in everyone else.
‘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.’
This ‘mysterious stranger’ coming into a group unannounced and unwelcomed is admittedly not the most original of plot devices, yet of course with the right author they can do something very different and that is what I felt Deborah Levy did with ‘Swimming Home’. Everyone has secrets, yet as we go on and learn Kitty’s, we start to see those in the other characters whilst they are still sussing out Kitty’s themselves. It’s a great vantage point and one Deborah Levy does wonderfully well by almost seamlessly making us flit from each characters perspectives, a style that has sometimes been known to irritate me, yet here worked wonderfully well.
I absolutely loved Levy’s writing style. A word is never wasted and she can concoct, like in the opening of the book, a whole set of images in a single sentence. Everything is very real and people fully form in front of your eyes without her writing much and certainly never over writing. For example ‘Mitchell lay on his back sweating. It was three a.m. and he had just had a nightmare about a centipede.’ Or ‘Joe Jacobs lay on his back in the master bedroom, as it was described in the villa’s fact sheet, longing for a curry.’ Even the characters who fall slightly off centre stage get the same treatment, like the wonderful aged Madeleine Sheridan, though watch out for some of those background characters as they become more catalytic and important on occasion as the book goes. They are all fully formed, even by the most random of moments. Mitchell thinking it is a bear floating in the pool in the middle of Nice certainly says a lot about him from the off doesn’t it.
‘It was the fat man who liked guns calling up to her. Madeleine Sheridan lifted up her arthritic arm and waved with two limp fingers from her straw chair. Her body had become a sum of flawed parts. At medical school she had learned she had twenty-seven bones in each hand, eight in the wrist alone, five in the palm. Her fingers were rich with nerve endings but now even moving two fingers was an effort.’
I thought ‘Swimming Home’ was a truly marvellous book. I loved how Deborah Levy set up a simplistic and rather conventional premise and made it anything but. I loved how she through a set of characters of all ages (from teenage Nina to elderly Madeleine) all walks of life (from the rich Joe to the poor local business man Claude) together so richly and yet so tightly in so few pages. Most of all though I loved the underlying and brooding darkness of the book and the way Levy kept me on my toes flipping everything plot wise and playing games with prose style too. It is a book I will certainly re-read, one I didn’t want to take back to the library, and if all Levy’s books are like this I shall have to go through her entire back catalogue. It’s definitely one of my books of the year and one I would heartily recommend.
Here’s hoping it gets short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in four days time. I have actually read a few of the long list, though am eking out reviews at the moment while I read the Green Carnation Prize submissions, and this is one of my three favourites so far. Who else has read it and what did you think?