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Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

How I decided to read this book is a little serendipity.

I saw my colleague reading it and about to finish it. I swapped my English Passenger by Michael Kneale for my colleague’s Swimming Home.

What I have heard about the book…

My first impression about the book was that it was confusing, abstract, one has to go back a few times before you understand what the book is trying to say. I am just dead curious. I wanted to know what other bloggers mean by saying all that. After all it is a very very short book. I got nothing to lose for reading it.

A body in the swimming pool

It is July 1994, as Joe arrives with his family, wife Isabel and daughter Nina at the villa in the hills above the French city Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl with the long red hair and green nail varnish is very much alive…. and naked. Her name is Kitty Finch: A self-proclaimed botanist.

Along with Joe’s family there are family friends Mitchell and Laura. Joe is a celebrated poet, Isabel is a war correspondent. Just a mere mention of war correspondent makes me intrigued about the character, Isabel.

Kitty remains in the villa because she thinks she has a booking at the villa. There has been a confusion with the rental dates. All the local hotels are booked up, so Isabel offers her spare room to Kitty. Similar to Jurgen, the German caretaker who fell under Kitty’s spell, soon Joe and Nina fell under Kitty’s spell. Why is Kitty there? What does Kitty wants from them?

Taut and suspense

Isabel invites Kitty to stay. She and Joe have troubles in their marriage and Kitty is “a window waiting to be climbed through” for both of them. Madeline Sheridan the next door neighbour suspect Kitty is mental. Joe Jacobs is not Joe’s real name. What I love about Levy is that she switches between viewpoints and balances attention among these characters each of them is just a “sketch” no offers of a thorough or in-depth analysis of each one of them. So it left a lot for the reader’s interpretation as to what exactly each of them are really thinking? This is the first time I read such short novel who can communicate so much between pages without having to spell it out, only if you get it. I admit some parts I do not get it. For example, I don’t get it why Isabel uses different maiden names? Why do you think she did that?

I read the book anticipating something bad will happen at the end. There is tension in Kitty’s presence. There is tension between the unsaid in the marriage of Joe and Isabel.

“Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely,” Kitty says more than once. “But you did not get home safely. You did not get home at all. I have come to France to save you from your thoughts” – page 146

– doesn’t these words sends a chill down the spine?

I thought the opening 2-page chapter creates the tension from the very start and the ending ties up with the opening was a brilliant technique. The ending caught me by surprise. From the focus of Kitty and Joe the attention shift to Nina and for most part I feel extremely sorry for Nina. I will never know what exactly happen in the night that leads to such tragic ending.  It is up to me to decide what I want to believe has happened. There are lines in the book that stops me on my track:

“Let knowledge serve the world”. Now she thought she would change the school motto to something that warned the girls that knowledge would not necessarily serve them, nor would make them happy. There was a chance it would instead throw light on visions they did not want to see. The new motto would have to take into account the idea that knowledge was sometimes hard to live with. – page 96

The rectangular swimming pool that had been carved from stone in the grounds of the villa reminded him of a coffin. A floating open coffin lit with the underwater lights Jurgen swore at when he fiddled with the incandescent light bulbs he’d had to change twice since they arrived. A swimming pool was just a hole in the ground. A grave filled with water. – page 87

Questions unanswered

I usually hate my questions unanswered when I read a novel. This book casts a strange spell in me. Every sentence seems incoherent to the next one, each description seems to be a description of something deeper and harder to grasp. The book describes the depth and pain of depression beautifully. If you can take ambiguity and doesn’t need all your questions answered. This book may be for you.

I like it more than I have expected.

Paperback. Publisher: Faber & Faber 2011; Length: 157 pages; Setting: Alpes-Maritime, France. Source: J. Saville’s copy. Finished reading on the 11th November 2012.

Almost everyone I know have read the book:

Judith@leeswammes: The novel includes themes as depression, finding one’s identity, finding what is one’s home, relationships. It’s only for people who value a literary novels and don’t mind a slow story line.

Jackie@farmlane books: Unfortunately I haven’t read many books by these authors and so am clearly missing out on all the parallels. As a book on its own Swimming Home is quite dull, but if you take it as a reflection on the literature of the last hundred years, it is probably genius.

Kim@Reading Matters: In a way, this is a novel of contradictions: it’s dry and dispassionate throughout, but the ending is very moving and leaves one feeling particularly unnerved; the writing is taut and sparse, but it feels lyrical and Levy can capture a mood or scene in just a few words (“it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice”); the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling.

Alex in leeds: I’d be disappointed if this made the shortlist, simply because I don’t think it’s powerful enough or particularly memorable long-term. Judging by the reviews linked to below though, this has found fans who will be equally disappointed if it misses out.

John Self’s (of The Asylum) review at Guardian

About the writer:

Deborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their “intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination”, including Pax, Heresies for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Deborah wrote and published her first novel Beautiful Mutants (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, Swallowing Geography, The Unloved (Vintage) and Billy and Girl (Bloomsbury). She has always written across a number of art forms and was Fellow in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1989-1991.

Swimming Home is her first novel in 15 years. The book is shortlisted for Man Booker Prize 2012.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


10 thoughts on “Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

  1. It’s an interesting book that can be read superficially or at a much deeper level, it has one of those beginnings that only becomes clear having read the end or vice-versa, so re-reading it is perhaps a different experience. I found myself going back to try and find the connections.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | November 20, 2012, 9:11 am
    • Claire,
      I’m glad you like this. I think I get most of the clues that are in the book. In retrospect, I know what Levy means when Nina saw “something under the bed” but metaphorically like the “windows that climb through” I have to read some other people’s review before I get it.

      Posted by JoV | November 20, 2012, 9:47 am
  2. I wonder whether I’d be kinder to it on a re-read? I might have to pick it up again next year, away from Booker fever and read it a little more slowly…

    Posted by Alex in Leeds | November 20, 2012, 11:21 am
    • Alex,
      It’s a question I find myself about re-reading a book. I wonder if I would feel differently if I read it the second time?
      It’s a shame that I don’t re-read any of the books I have read before. Hardly. Maybe when I am much much older!

      Posted by JoV | November 20, 2012, 1:35 pm
  3. It sounds as though our feelings weren’t too different for this one. I think a re-read would make it better, but that isn’t something I want to do. If you ever pick it up again I’d be interested to know if your thoughts change.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | November 20, 2012, 12:38 pm
  4. Sounds like an intriguing and thought-provoking read, but I think I’d need to be a good mood myself before I could tackle a subject like this.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | November 20, 2012, 1:03 pm
  5. Glad you enjoyed this, Jo. I was a bit wary about the book, being a Booker Prize shortlister (me and Booker aren’t friends). But yes, it was a good, solid read. I especially loved the holiday atmosphere that is so clear from the book. And that in the autumn, just what I needed.

    Posted by Leeswammes | November 21, 2012, 8:37 am
    • Judith,
      Me and Booker aren’t best friends too! I don’t like most of the Booker winners books I must say, although I find some shortlist to be more read worthy. It does talk about holiday in Swimming Home but because I knew there were something sinister lurking under the surface, I didn’t feel as relax as I were on holiday! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | November 21, 2012, 11:00 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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