Monday, August 20, 2012

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

And Other Stories, 2011
157 pp

The summer of 1994 and a rented villa in France  provide  the setting for this short but powerfully unnerving  novel,  which takes place in the span of only one week's time, with events related one day at a time from varying points of view. Swimming Home starts out with a  family and a couple of their friends on what is supposed to be a peaceful vacation together, but the discovery of a naked young woman named Kitty Finch in their swimming pool  changes everything.  Her presence upends any sort of relaxation a vacation is supposed to provide (as well as any other story based on this idea) and becomes the catalyst for things lying long concealed under the surface to materialize.  I've never read anything by this author before, so I can't say how it is similar or different to anything she's written in the past, but I can say that this book is disquieting yet at the same time  captivating.  It's not a light and happy kind of story; in fact, it can become very dark at times and sometimes uncomfortable to read. 

Joe, Isabel and Nina Jacobs are sharing the rented villa on the Riviera with two friends, Mitchell and Laura.  Joe is a poet who came to England at age five, the son of Polish Jews who died in the camps.  His wife Isabel is a war correspondent, nearly 50, and their daughter Nina is a  teenager who is probably older than her years, verging mentally on the edge of young adulthood.   Isabel has spent her daughter's life largely away from home in the world's hotspots, reporting on "countless massacres and conflicts... pressing her up close to  the suffering world,"  leaving Nina in Joe's charge, but  largely neglected and having to fend for herself.  Laura is Isabel's friend, and together with husband Mitchell, she runs a shop in Euston selling "primitive Persian, Turkish and Hindu weapons," as well as African jewelry.  The neighbor in the next villa over, Madeleine Sheridan, is a British expat and retired psychiatrist  who watches the group from a hidden place on her balcony, and refers to Mitchell as the "fat man who liked guns."

Coming stark naked out of the villa's pool is Kitty Finch, the central character of this novel.  She claims that she had made a mistake in booking dates for the villa, and that now as luck would have it, there were no hotels open in the area for several more days. Isabel invites Kitty to stay at the villa until a hotel opens up, an offer  no one can fathom.  In fact, one of the central questions that runs throughout the story is why Isabel would do such a thing.  When Kitty accepts, she asks if it's okay with everyone, telling them to say if they mind.  Laura is especially anxious about Kitty staying:
"She and Mitchell had shut their shop in Euston for the entire summer, knowing the windows that had been smashed by thieves and drug addicts at least three times that year would be smashed again when their holiday was over. They had come to the Alpes-Maritimes to escape from the futility of breaking glass...The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway... it seemed to her that Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him"
but says nothing.   Nina is also troubled, and feels her heart going "hysterical,"  but not one person in the group speaks up and Kitty moves in.  As it turns out, Kitty is a fan of Joe's poetry; she is also a friend of the villa's owner, a woman for whom Kitty's mother used to clean, and who had revealed to Kitty that Joe has taken the place for the summer.  She has come to get Joe to read her poem entitled "Swimming Home," which Kitty says is a conversation with him and no one else.   Joe has an "aha" moment after Kitty confesses during a walk with him, thinking about
 "young women who followed him about and wanted him to read their poetry, and he was now convinced she was one of them, always started by telling him they’d written a poem about something extraordinary. They walked side by side, flattening a path through long grass. He waited for her to speak, to make her request, to say how influenced by his books she was, to explain how she’d managed to track him down, and then she would ask would he mind, did he have time, would he be so kind as to please, please read her small effort inspired by himself."
But their conversation goes well beyond poetry.  In a short span of time Kitty reveals to Joe that after being on it for several years, she's discontinued her depression medication because she feels nothing when she takes it.  Despite the fact that the other characters find her to be "barmy, bonkers, barking, ... loopy, nuts, off with the fairies and ... cuckoo," Joe finds her to be
  "as receptive as it was possible to be, an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare. Every moment with her was a kind of emergency, her words always too direct, too raw, too truthful."
There's every hint that something is going to happen between Kitty and Joe, not only because the other characters are concerned about it, but also because the author has given us a peek into the near future in a couple of brief episodes entitled "A Mountain Road. Midnight."  It is here that Joe leans his head out of a car window, noting that
"Early humans had once lived in this mountain forest. They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up."
  In the meantime,  things start to spiral in all of  the vacationers' lives, building to a surprising conclusion as thoughts and feelings go unvoiced, as signs go unheeded or are totally misread, as important information is not acted upon, as motives are questioned, as secrets are quietly revealed and as plots go off off the rails. 

The continuing  switch of points of view keeps things edgy and sharp, making for a particularly jarring reading experience and  turning on its head any expectation the reader may have.   As the novel twists and turns toward a surprising conclusion, as the reader is thinking that all is eventually going to be revealed, we find out that like the Jacobs and their friends, we may have possibly misread things all along, depending more on our own presumptions rather than what the signs have been pointing toward throughout the entire story. 

While definitely chilling and unnerving, the novel is also a far cry from ordinary and is well worth reading.  If you are looking for a light, feel good kind of thing, this isn't it.  The first few pages in I knew this was something pleasingly different and I didn't once change my mind.   I do have to be really honest here and say that my lack of literary background is probably a detriment. For example, while I get some of the symbolism and metaphors  involved here, many of the professional or more literary  reviews I read after I finished this book point to the fact that the author based her title on John Cheever's story called "The Swimmer."  I haven't read this work, and so as usual, I probably missed out on a lot of what the author was trying to convey.   This is really frustrating, and it a) makes me feel sort of unqualified to comment in some kind of knowledgeable fashion and b) prompted me to buy a copy of Cheever's short stories for later reading.  On the other hand, I genuinely connected with this  novel as far as I understood it, and for me, that's what it's really all about.  

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