Swimming Home is the fourth of this year’s Booker shortlist that I have read so far. For me it has the feel of that obscure and hard to describe thing – “A Booker book” – that is not the same thing as being the one I liked best – it’s not.
Swimming Home is quite a slight novel – I read it over one day in a couple of sittings. It is a darkly comic exploration of depression and its consequences.
“When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and tod him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.”It is the summer of 1994 and two very middle class families are spending their holiday in a French villa. Poet Joe, his war correspondent wife Isobel, their 14 year old daughter Nina and Isobel’s friend Laura with her husband Mitchell. One Saturday they find a woman floating naked in their pool, her name is Kitty Finch, almost at once Kitty is a disturbing presence. Kitty claims to have mixed up her holiday dates and oddly Isobel invites this beautiful naked young woman to stay in the villa’s spare bedroom, despite her husband being a serial philanderer. Kitty, green finger nailed stutterer and botanist, takes her clothes off with alarming frequency, has written a poem – Swimming Home – which she intends to show to Joe – with whom she claims to have a connection.
“She was not a poet. She was a poem. She was about to snap in half. He thought his own poetry had made her la la la la love him. It was unbearable. He could not bear it. She was still trying to remember how to say remember.”The story has an undercurrent of surrealism as Kitty’s presence in the villa over one hot week unleashes a quiet dark chaos. Nina begins to menstruate for the first time, Isobel examines her marriage, and Joe is haunted by his abandonment in a polish forest by his parents during the Second World War. Mitchell eats too much and plays with his antique guns, while Jurgen the villa’s caretaker lusts after Kitty Finch. These dysfunctional people are each aware that Kitty is psychologically damaged yet seem rather unconcerned. Only Madeline Sheridan the octogenarian next door neighbour is really alarmed by Kitty – Madeline once during a previous visit by Kitty to the villa – was responsible for Kitty’s hospitalisation.
“a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.’Swimming Home is a powerful little novel; the characterisation on the whole is extremely good, and deftly explored, especially given the novels brevity. The people and events of this slim little volume will stay in the mind – in Swimming Home Deborah Levy has given the reader the memory of a hot and heady summer week. The suffocating looming presence of a disturbed young woman and the consequences that she brings with her will be difficult to forget.
As I said at the beginning, this is not my favourite of the four Booker shortlisted novels I have read so far. I liked it – I have no real criticism of it – but maybe I was expecting to be more blown away than I was. Deborah Levy is certainly a gifted writer, who I have not read before and I would be interested to read more of her work in the future.