Category Archives: Deborah Levy

Black Vodka – Deborah Levy

And so here is my final review, or set of book thoughts as I think of them, of 2013. This seems fitting considering I read this book not once, not twice but three times in total throughout the year as Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka is a collection of stories that is most beguiling because it evokes many sensations as you read it. There is darkness here, puzzlement and often a sensation that you need to read each story again and again to get more from it – so I did.

And Other Words, 2013, paperback, short stories, 125 pages, bought by my good self

Short story collections, I find, are rather a nightmare to write anything about. The instant thing most people ask is ‘what is the theme of the collection?’ Well to be honest with Black Vodka I am not sure. Many have a sense or need of belonging somewhere within them, though in differing forms. There is also the theme of love in many; sometimes its loss, sometimes where it sparks, sometimes where it lacks, sometimes where it never quite is. This all sounds very vague and if this was for a broadsheet I would probably be fired, but thankfully as it is my I can’t fire myself (well I could but I won’t) but I can ask the question… Does every short story collection really need to be about themes? Can’t a short  story collection just be what it says it is? As to try and give Black Vodka set themes seems to limit it and I don’t think that is what Deborah Levy would want or has set out to do.

What we have is a collection of ten stories that cover a huge spectrum of human experiences, ones which seem to show the signs of our times. Infidelity seems to be one of the most common as within Vienna, Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, Pillow Talk, Black Vodka, and Roma there is infidelity going on somewhere in the tale. Levy doesn’t preach though, some lovers are forgiven, some are not and occasionally love blossoms from an act of infidelity and we have all heard such tales from friends, or friends of friends. There is also, as I mentioned the sense of belonging, be it to a place (Shining a Light), a person (Roma), or simply just to society (Black Vodka).

My next statement might sound bonkers but the whole collection is also linked by a European feel. America and Asia are mentioned but in every single tale Europe seems to stand out, all the tales are set in Europe but no matter where somewhere else in Europe will be mentioned. Someone will compare something to ‘a fisherman’s cottage in Greece’, ‘orchards of Istanbul’ or be somewhere continental feeling very homesick for the rain in the UK. Shining a Light looks at this as Alice finds herself in Prague, her luggage lost, befriending the people who she thinks are locals but are in fact foreigners too . They become united by their want, or need, of having a good time to cover their homesickness, only Alice can go home her new acquaintances cannot. In Pillow Talk lovers Pavel and Ella are from completely different backgrounds yet have met and started a relationship in London, Pavel has an interview in Dublin so will the relationship last (especially as he does something stupid) long term and can it with these differences we try so hard to be cool with yet also try and cover up as if they don’t matter? Vienna, a tale of a regular extramarital tryst, puts it well…

He thinks about Magret swimming in the cold pool below her apartment, her head surfacing, her mouth opening to take a breath. He knows she is dead inside and he is aroused that this is so, and he takes out a cigarette and lights it. He thinks about  how there is life with rye bread and black tea and there is life with champagne and wild salmon. He can live without champagne but he cannot live without his children; that is grief he knows he cannot endure but he must endure and he knows his hands will itch for ever. He thinks about feeling used, teased, abused and mocked by middle Europe, whose legs were wrapped around his appallingly grateful body ten minutes ago, and he thinks about the twentieth century that ended the same time as his marriage.

I should here mention Levy’s writing, which I fell in love with in Swimming Home and loved just as much in this. Actually I may have loved it more as I got a more varied sense of it and all its shades as every tale in the collection is different, a novel can show many shades in a particular form. With Black Vodka as a collection we have short stories in the literary form you might expect along with tales with a tinge of science fiction like Cave Girl; which sees a woman wanting a body transplant and what effects that has, plus ghostly tales like Placing a Call; which also somehow manages to break your heart, a stand out moment for me. In all the stories the prose is short and to the point and crackles along, there is also a deliciously dark feel to each tale, even when there may be a happy ending, which leads me to my favourites…

I have to say I liked every tale, even when they completely baffled me upon a first read. There were several standouts though. Shining a Light which initially I didn’t quite get, on a re-read or two made me think about Europe, the state of it and my relation to it. Stardust Nation had a wonderful sense of unease, which only tales of madness can, and twists when you least expect it reminding me of everything I love about Daphne Du Maurier at her darkest. It is also a very clever tale looking at the pressures we have as adults and how cracks we have cemented from our past can be triggered by them devastatingly. Placing a Call in a very few pages it broke my heart and made me cry. Finally the title tale Black Vodka which I have now actually read four times and each time have loved the sense of needing to belong which it evokes but have also left feeling it is the most hopeful story or the most heart breaking depending on my mood and I have not experienced that before.

Black Vodka is a marvellous collection because it looks at the internal and external worlds of people and how they affect the worlds of  others through their actions or sometimes lack of them. In Pillow Talk Pavel asks his girlfriend Ella ‘Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?’ For me, and I could be wrong, that is really what Levy is looking at with these stories; how we arrive and how we depart from other people’s lives. She then lets us ask questions of what those arrivals and departures mean, occasionally seeing some of our own actions, the good and the bad, in them especially as the real world gets smaller and smaller in modern times. A brilliant collection indeed.

Deborah Levy signed

Who else has read Black Vodka and what did you think? I have to admit that it is one of the hardest collections to write about in part because of its scope and brilliance and also as I met Deborah earlier in the year (one of my 2013 highlights) and she said how much my review of Swimming Home had meant, no pressure with this one then – ha! I am now desperate to read more of her back catalogue of works and have borrowed Billy and Girl from the library though I believe many of her books are being reissued in the new year, have you read any of them and what did you think?

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Filed under And Other Stories, Books of 2013, Deborah Levy, Review

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

‘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.

*****, And Other Stories, 2011, paperback, fiction, 157 pages, borrowed from the library

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?

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Filed under And Other Stories, Books of 2012, Deborah Levy, Man Booker, Review