Swimming Home by Deborah Levy


This short novel is best described through its characters: Joe, the philandering famous poet, was sent off to England as a child so that he escaped the holocaust; his wife Isabel, so eager to escape her family that she goes off to war zones as a correspondent; Nina, their 14 year-old daughter; Mitchell and Laura, friends about to lose their business, who are along for the family vacation in Southern France; and the beautiful young Kitty Finch, whom they find upon their arrival swimming naked in the pool of the rented villa. She has no place to go, so Isabel invites her to stay for a few days. You can see that complications will ensue. Oh yes, there's another character whose thoughts caught my attention more than once: Madeleine Sheridan, next door neighbor about to turn 80.  Here, for example:

Madeleine Sheridan, who was quite partial to beef and often lonely in the evenings, wondered if she had it in herself to decline Mitchell's invitation. She thought she did. When couples offer shelter or a meal to strays and loners, they do not really take them in. They play with them. Perform for them. And when they are done they tell their stranded guest in all sorts of sly ways she is now required to leave. Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their bests interest at heart. A single guest was a mere distraction from this task.

The author Deborah Levy here shows both her impressive insight and deep cynicism. Fortunately there is more of the former than the latter in the book. Here's Madeleine again:

It was hard for an old woman to get a waiter's attention when he was busy serving topless women sunbathing in thongs. She had read about yogic siddhas who mastered human invisibility through a combination of concentration and meditation. Somehow she had managed to make her body imperceptible to the waiter without any of the training.

I see that I was distracted from the main action by the clever Madeleine. Much remains unclear in this book, but I found its vagueness appealing; people are so often unexplainable and Deborah Levy tells us as much as it is reasonable for us to expect to understand. The book ends with a few pages about the daughter Nina 16 years later; this little coda was oddly reassuring for me.

Available at the public library, UVa, and from Amazon. Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home, Bloomsbury USA, 2011, 157 pages.

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