Literature: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

AS THE SHORTEST title on the recently announced Man-Booker Prize shortlist, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is not exactly an off-putting tome to look at from the outside. It doesn’t even qualify as a tome.

The novel, which runs to 157 pages, does not sound from its blurb like your standard prize nominee fare. It’s not impenetrable or obscure; rather it appears to prelude the tale of a middle-class family, poet Jozef Jacobs, his war reporter wife Isabel and their daughter Nina, along with their shop-owner friends, Laura and Mitchell, heading out to a villa in France for a week. The only catch, and the true catalyst to this story, is Kitty Finch, the woman whom they find already in their pool. Unexpectedly, Isabel invites her to stay in the spare room.

Events do not purely spiral from the presence of Kitty, however. Yes, she is something of an object of interest to the other occupants of the villa, but she is nothing more than an interruption to many of the characters. She serves to warp the reality they were expecting to come face to face with on their trip, characters drawn towards her only to bend away from her impenetrability and come to realisations about themselves as they hold their own personalities up to their judgements of Kitty.
Much of the subject matter of the book reads like other contemporary writing- characters burdened with the regrets of their past and relationships, they don’t like themselves and are irritated by the company they are with, yet still crave their love and attention. Levy touches well upon this confusion, staying true to the natures of her characters- whose personal, of-the-moment crises are very three-dimensional, even if their personalities are not completely fleshed out- and as such, none reach any conclusions. It would have been dishonest for any of them to reach any satisfactory epiphanies.

What really stood out to me about this book was the writing itself. Jozef Jacobs is established early on as a poet- or, ‘the arsehole poet’- and Kitty Finch as one of his readers, who only really wants Jozef to read a poem she has written as inspired by him, titled ‘Swimming Home’. Poetry pervades these two people and the pages of the novel in which they walk. Swimming Home is divided into seven sections, one for each day spent in the villa. Within these segments are further divisions, each briefly titled and shifting character perspective. This, coupled with Levy’s use of short sentences and starkly sharp, up close observational detail as picked up on by her characters, reads like poetry. The novel could read as a narrative poetic anthology, the build-up and misunderstandings that climax with an inevitable catastrophe. To my mind, it is this that has led to Swimming Home being nominated for the Man Brooker Prize, and makes it worth the quick, insightful read it proves to be.