Book Review | Swimming Home

Deborah Levy’s novel didn’t stand a chance against fellow Booker nominee Hilary Mantel, but Rose Lapira discovers that this slim thriller boasts hidden – if unsettling – depths.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home may not have scored the Book Prize last year, but it remains one of the most haunting novels of the year.
Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home may not have scored the Book Prize last year, but it remains one of the most haunting novels of the year.

Swimming Home is a novel that barely made it to print. It was rejected by many mainstream publishers, who decided it was 'too literary', meaning it does not make 'easy reading', and that it does not 'sell well'.

Fortunately, it was taken up by a small literary publishing house called And Other Stories, and to the surprise of its denigrators found its way on the 2012 Man Booker shortlist, which automatically guaranteed an instant reading public.

Author Deborah Levy grew up in South Africa, where her father - an academic and a member of the African National Congress - was imprisoned for four years. On his release in 1968, the family moved to England. Levy trained as playwright and made a name in the theatre before writing novels, Swimming Home being her fifth novel.

So is the novel an easy read? It is certainly not a difficult book to follow, being brief and written in a flowing, simple style. Its hidden depths, however, are not all that easy to follow, lying beneath the novel's apparent simplicity.

In fact, after finishing the book, one is tempted to go back again to certain passages, looking for missing links about questions that Levy poses but leaves unanswered.

Swimming Home sets out like a conventional middle class story of a British family that goes abroad for a holiday in the sun. A well-known poet and his war correspondent wife go on holiday to a villa on the French Riviera, with their teenage daughter and another couple. On arrival, they discover a pretty young girl swimming naked in their pool. It seems there was a mix-up in the dates with the owner of the villa, and since the girl has nowhere to go she is asked to stay on.

This is Kitty, who happens to be obsessed with the poet. It is no coincidence that she is here. She has been stalking him and wants him to read one of her poems, entitled Swimming Home, which he is reluctant to do. She is the one who will destroy the apparent tranquility of the group with devastating and unexpected consequences. This is a dark story which gets darker still towards the end, but the ending is quite unexpected.

The swimming pool is at centre stage where the characters act their part.

One is reminded that Deborah Levy has written successful plays and had her training in the theatre. The pool is an obvious metaphor for life, where all the swimmers are trying to swim home and reach safety.  Kitty remarks that 'Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely'. But will they all do so? For the pool is also 'a hole like a grave - covered in water'.  Deborah Levy is asking a highly pertinent question: how many of us, at the end of the day, will arrive home and dry?

While it is obvious that Kitty has mental problems and is off medication, soon it becomes apparent that the others are not what they seem to be. Joe, the famous British poet, alias Josef Nowogrodzki, cannot get over his traumatic past as a child when his family was deported to the death camp in Poland, and he was told never to go home. His wife Isabel wishes to 'unsee' what she had seen during the wars she had covered as a journalist, and had long since stopped loving her philandering husband. The two friends have their own problems. Nina, their daughter, is the only stable figure in the group.

Kitty is the catalyst that brings Joe 'to the edge of something truthful and dangerous'. She had given him the poem to read in the hope that he would give her the reasons for wanting to live. But he was the wrong reader, 'for death had been on his mind for a long time'.

This is an allusive and disturbing novel with different layers of meaning. It is beautifully written too, with many lyrical passages to lighten the tone of the novel.

Tom McCarthy, in an afterword to the novel, writes: 'What holds this kaleidoscopic narrative together, even as it tears its characters apart, is - in classical Freudian fashion - desire: desire and its inseparable flip side, the death drive. This comes embodied... in the figure of Kitty... volatile, imploding around a swimming pool.'

Deborah Levy missed out on the Man Booker Prize, though many were betting on this.  The judges had an impossible task, for how can one compare Hilary Mantel's historical tome with Levy's slim, existential novel?  In the end Mantel won the day. And yet Swimming Home was probably the most haunting novel on last year's short list.

"...death camp in Poland." No mention of Germany or Nazis. Poland did not exist as a nation during World War Two. The death camps were established and operated by Germany, and the first victims were Polish Christians.