J.B. Blackford

Refine. Hone. Distill. The self is a text, too.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

In print form, this story takes 157 pages to tell, on the Nook it’s only 115 pages, and although I’ve read it twice I still feel like there are pieces that I’m missing. The good part of this novel’s brevity is that it can be read repeatedly if you choose; its fault is that it may come across as abbreviated and undeveloped, especially if you have neither the time nor the inclination to revisit a story that — for all of its insight — is dark and disheartening.

The first thing the reader can be sure of is that this is a story about infidelity, begun in medias res speeding through the French Riviera with Kitty and Joe. The scene in the car is replayed several times and several ways through the book, and, although we know a bit more about the characters each time, it still deposits readers at the denouement with unattended questions they must either flesh out on their own or ignore.

In the first few pages, we learn that Joe is a famous (“arsehole”) poet, which can be added to the knowledge that he is a philanderer (gleaned from the opening scene which won’t actually happen until later). The rest of the cast includes Joe’s wife Isabel, the war correspondent; their 14-year-old daughter Nina; and friends of the family, Laura and Mitchell (who have come on vacation to avoid the reality that they’re bankrupt and will have to sell both house and shop upon returning to England). Kitty Finch, the “beautiful, mad girl” who spends more of this novel naked than clothed, is the catalyst they find in their swimming pool and who insists that she has nowhere else to go. By the ninth page, we know that she has a thin body, copper hair, gray eyes, snarled front teeth, golden pubic hair, long thighs, full breasts, jutting hips, and green nail polish. As the narrative focus shifts between characters throughout the story, we learn the most about Kitty both from her perspective and others’. In the shade of these main players, there is also Jurgen, the villa’s hippie caretaker whose love for Kitty prompts him to behave as a buffer between her and the world, and Dr. Madeleine Sheridan, whose own battle with mortality over her eightieth birthday shuffles around the periphery of her antagonistic relationship with Kitty.

Although brief, Swimming Home is an example of how one story contains a multitude of facets. It’s a story about the female body, from Dr. Sheridan’s disintegration, to Kitty’s beauty, to Nina’s coming-of-age. It’s a story about personal and public identities, and the challenges that we face when trying to discern which part is truth and which is façade. It’s a story about familial relationships, how infidelity affects husband, wife, and child, and how that, in turn, affects the parent-child relationship. It’s a story about language and words and the power that both the written and spoken word can have in our lives. It is a story about our pasts and allowing them to dictate our presents. But it also, and perhaps ultimately, is the story of depression, or the perspective of someone to whom “it’s always raining.”

Compiling each character’s role in the complicated scenario playing out at the villa required me to take stock of my own perceptions and reactions. Throughout Swimming Home, Levy asks her readers for cognizance and self-awareness with deft and subtle observations, like when Dr. Sheridan claims that, “Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart.” Dr. Sheridan is also the character who finds it “impossible to believe that someone did not want to be saved from their own incoherence.” Although these musings are slipped in amongst vignettes of interaction that give the book the feeling of a headlong rush, their poignancy warrants a pause while I think, Is that true? I’ve known couples who seem to behave that way. Is that true? I guess I have known people who don’t want to be saved, and did I accept that or refuse to believe it?

The book ends from Nina’s perspective, and as she contemplates what happened, she thinks, “I have never got a grip on when the past begins or where it ends … as much as I try to make the past keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through the day.” In a similar fashion, Swimming Home won’t mind its manners; it forces tough questions, demands attention given to its quiet interrogation, and stays with me long after it’s over and done, a part of my past that keeps on murmuring.

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