Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy (2011)
And Other Stories (2011)
165 pp

This year’s judges of the Man Booker Prize seem to have quite a task in front of them when they sit to whittle the longlist down to a shortlist. On the one hand, at least a few of the judges opted to include Rachel Joyce’s rather conventional, sentimental journey The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (my review here). At least a few judges — and, who knows, but I’m guessing not the same ones who liked Harold Fry — opted to include Deborah Levy’s anti-sentimental, formally challenging Swimming Home (2011). In his introduction, Tom McCarthy (author of C, which I reviewed here) writes, “Like the emotional and cerebral choreographies of Pina Bausch, her fiction seemed less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the interzone (to borrow Burrough’s term) it set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated.” Will we really get a shortlist where a book like Harold Fry, which is very concerned about the story it’s telling, can coexist with Swimming Home, where the story is not at all what matters?

Levy quickly gets to work setting up a simple stage on which the characters will subtly terrorize each other. It’s the summer of 1994, and two families have decided to vacation together in the Alpes-Maritime. We have the Jacobs: Joe is the father and “the arsehole poet known to his readers as JHJ; his wife is Isabel (she calls her husband Jozef), a war correspondent who understandably has a hard time reconciling her home life with her work life; their fourteen-year-old daughter is Nina, more aware than people give her credit for. We also have Mitchell and Laura, the Jacobs’ friends, who have come along a bit awkwardly.

One Saturday, to everyone’s surprise, there is a naked body in the villa’s pool. When she gets out of the pool, Kitty Finch feigns shock, saying someone must have messed up her schedule and told her she could be at the villa that week. No one buys it. Almost as a challenge to her husband — a sign that these couples might be, as one onlooker says, anxiously on the “task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart” — Isabel says that it’s okay, Kitty can stay in the spare room.

Laura is a bit shocked. She and Mitchell own a shop in Euston, which is frequently vandalized; she says that they “had come to the Alpes-Maritime to escape from the futility of mending broken glass.” And now she sees Kitty as “a window waiting to be climbed through.” In fact, surprised and unsure, but it seems to Laura that “Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him.”

Everyone is tense; everyone pretends to be enjoying a holiday. And we readers are on the edge of our chair wondering just when the violence and death is going to spring up from under the surface — we swear we can see it lurking around under there. It reminded me a great deal of Roman Polanski’s film Knife in the Water.

Our suspicions about Kitty Finch are quickly confirmed. Her arrival is no accident. She’s a fan of JHJ, and she’s brought her poem “Swimming Home” for him to read. Never do we think this is less than creepy: “When I write poems I always think you can hear them.” Never do the characters think so either; why do they allow her in? There’s a desire for annihilation; there’s desire.

Kitty and JHJ share more than poetry. Each have been on medication to get over trauma, and neither is particularly stable now. Their past is also unstable for the reader. We learn right away that JHJ was born Jozef and was able to escape Poland as a child. Much more than this we don’t know. More strangely, we are led to suspect that Kitty and JHJ have brushed past each other before, in a haunted past, though we have reason to doubt this. Nevertheless, whatever home they are swimming to it does not appear to have ever existed for them; after all, one of JHJ’s famous lines is “give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.”

We mustn’t forget about Isabel and Nina, to whom Levy gives equal time and weight in this story. Isabel, generally a “ghost” in her own home, some kind of transient or passerby, has even more cause to withdraw now that Kitty Finch has arrived (even though Isabel is the one who invited her to remain): “After Kitty Finch’s arrival all she could do to get through the day was to imitate someone she used to be; but who that was, who she used to be, no longer seemed to be a person worth imitating.”

How all of this affects Nina becomes central to this short (though it took me over a week to read it) book. It’s true that we readers are constantly on the lookout for physical violence to erupt (and it does), but the reality is that emotional violence is around us the whole time. Sadly, that’s what Nina is going to inherit.

I’ve only read three of the twelve longlisted titles, but I’d be happy if this one won. That said, I’d be happy if something else came along that was better (well, of course) because the time it took me to read this wasn’t just because the book demands time. Despite the high tension, or maybe because of it, each time I picked it up I had a hard time getting into it again. And at times, as short and tense as the book is, it was still a bit boring, and therefore all the easier to set aside when something else demanded my attention. I’m perfectly willing to accept that ease of putting the book down and difficulty picking it up again was entirely due to my own personal circumstances — with three children at home my life is not interruption free, and I think this book needs and deserves an unbroken stream of reading. Of course, now finished, looking back I see that unbroken stream and thinkSwimming Home is a powerful and disturbing book, well worth the time and work I devoted to reading it.

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