Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tony Messenger - 2012 Long List - Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

Let’s hope that Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life” is somewhat off the mark, as this year’s Booker Prize long list is a reflection of us living in depressing times. “The Lighthouse” and “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” both bleak tales of broken relationships, journeys into finding one’s self and now we have “Swimming Home” a bleak tale of depression, mental instability and…you guessed it….broken relationships.

You could look at Deborah Levy’s latest work on face value and report that it covers eight days, in 1994, in the lives of a pair of couples, one daughter, a psychiatric doctor, a resident housekeeper and the drop in Kitty Finch who is asked to stay.

We have Joe (or Jozef or JHJ) a famous poet, his wife Isabel a foreign correspondent and their daughter Nina. They are holidaying in France (near Nice), is it an attempt to rekindle their doomed marriage? A mother who was always away and missed her daughter growing up? Their companions are Mitchell and Laura, two family friends who are sharing the villa with them for the summer, they are on the verge of bankruptcy, shop owners and gluttons, also questioning their marriage. Arriving as a naked floating “bear” in the bottom of their swimming pool is Kitty, a self-proclaimed botanist who has stopped her anti-depressant medication. As a regular visitor to the villa, Kitty is adored by the live in housekeeper/groundsman Jurgen and despised by another long term resident, retired “shrink” Madeleine. This is a perfect setting for love triangles, explorations of love and worth and family tensions.

The spare room was dark and hot because the windows were closed and the curtains drawn. A pair of grubby flip-flops lay on top of the tangle of drying weeds lying on the floor. Kitty’s red hair streamed over a lumpy stained pillow, her freckled arms wrapped around Nina, who was clutching the nylon fur rabbit that was her last embarrassed link with childhood. Isabel knew Nina was awake and that she was pretending to be asleep under what seemed to be a starched white tablecloth. It looked like a shroud.

But it is the depression edge and the unsettling sparse prose and the underlying tension (will Kitty do something disturbing?) that is the real stand out here. Without giving  you any spoilers I did spend quite some time wondering if Kitty would act in some demented manner, but at the same time thinking that such actions would only belittle the real issue of mental illness, but on the other side of the coin, if it was to portray mental illness truly then maybe something will occur. This is all drawn out in Deborah Levy’s stark but poignant prose.

To have been so intimate with Kitty Finch had been a pleasure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

Although it may appear so, that’s quote is not a spoiler as it is on the second page of the book.

This is a novel which does for depression what Jon McGregor’s “Even The Dogs” (winner of the 2012 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize) did for heroin addiction, and in my mind that is very high praise. This is a short book which demands to be reread and very much a worthy inclusion on the Booker Prize list. I should also point out the publisher of this novel “And Other Stories” who produce four books per year purely on subscription. Through “patrons” paying 35 pounds for all four books they can publish in line with their values and approach booksellers as their product is already being read. In my mind a great business model and one that should be supported (I will be doing so!!). For more details visit their site at www.andotherstories.org

I must congratulate this year’s judges, because on face value I did think it would be a difficult list to tackle, but I’m part way onto my fifth novel from the long list and am enjoying the whole experience. At this stage it appears to be a great year for fiction, even if I don’t judge” Philida” as highly as the others. Next up will be a review of “The Teleportation Accident” by Ned Beauman.

Cross posted at my blog


  1. Excellent review, Tony, and just in time for the shortlist announcement! I'm quite intrigued by this one.

  2. Having not read any of the longlisted books, per your review I think its appearance on the shortlist is well deserved. Thanks for the review.