Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Deborah Levy’s novel is allusive and poetic; a literary gem that demands to be re-read in order to reward its reader with greater discoveries.
‘An eagle was hovering in the sky. It had seen the mice that ran through the uncut grass in the orchard.’
Seventy-nine year old Madeline Sheridan sits on her balcony and observes all – including ‘the mad girl with her halo of red hair’ who has been unleashed – literally and metaphorically – on a newly arrived pair of holidaying families.
Set around a villa in sun-drenched Alpes-Maritimes, France, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home portrays two middle class families and all of their not-so-hidden neuroses, flaws, and secrets. The apparently accidental overlapping of their accommodation booking with that of the complicated, unstable Kitty Finch is the catalyst which pulls at their weaknesses and tugs loose their masks.
Joe is a famous British poet; detached, pretentious, simmering with resentment. Wife and mother, Isabel, frequently posted abroad, is emotionally taut and aloof. Their daughter, 14 year-old Nina, serves as a stark reminder of the childishness of their behaviour.
Accompanying this dysfunctional trio are Mitchell – who has an unfortunate disdain for poets – and Laura. Descriptions of Mitchell verge on the grotesque, with his large sweaty body (‘flabby, prawn pink arms’) receiving frequent emphasis, along with his penchant for eating fine food – but not paying for it.
Within a short time frame, Levy portrays a myriad of characters, dissecting their individual psyches through allusion and analogy. Her prose is delicate yet probing – chipping away at the uncomfortable and little by little, allowing the reader’s imagination to pour in – and her style is at once obscure and rich, with a depth that is original and compelling. She pens allusive and poetic sentences with abrupt changes in tone and subject.
Touches of humour pop up where you least expect them, forcing re-readings of her remarkable sentences and thus drawing attention to Levy’s intriguing and skillful use of language. Wry humour aside, the book’s overriding theme becomes as uncomfortable as the prickly heatwave the characters must endure.
Swimming Home is one of six novels shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012, bookending an important year for Levy, whose short story 'Black Vodka' was shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award 2012.
Rich text and emotional depth ensure this novel is one those literary gems that demands to be re-read in order to reward its reader with greater discoveries. Full of metaphor and symbolism, there is much to be unpacked in this slender volume.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5
By Deborah Levy
Paperback, 176pp, RRP $19.99
Faber & Faber / Allen & Unwin