Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

You don't need to be a cultural neanderthal to view with a little trepidation any contemporary novel which not only dares to have an introduction, but dares to have an introduction which boasts the author's fiction  is 'less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated'.  This is what you get, I surmised, for daring to try and read books from the Man Booker longlist.

You could forgive the pretension, but to be fair on Levy this introduction actually does her down - Swimming Home has a very interesting story, albeit one which the consciously obscuring style does it's best to conceal.  Joe and Isabel Jacobs are holidaying with their daughter Nina and their supposed friends Mitchell and Laura.  Their (non-existent) holiday bliss is interrupted by the appearance in their swimming pool of a mysterious teenage botanist, Kitty Finch, who is desperate for Joe (a poet) to read something she's written.

Ironically, for a novel centred around a holiday swimming pool, this couldn't be further from supplanting Fifty Shades of Grey (or should we now say Monday to Friday Man?) from the 'read by the pool' list.  Kitty might rise out of the swimming pool, but lazy readers risk drowning in the promised 'interzone' - at times passages demand instant re-reading just for the reader to keep up.  
In spite of this, a little bit of effort is definitely rewarded.  Levy succeeds in concentrating our attention on almost all of her characters in turn - not all are attractive, but all are strangely enthralling.  This is a novel where all the characters seem to be self-absorbed to the point of incredulity, allowing Levy's mesmerising style to hold sway.

That self-absorption might be the main weakness of the novel, though.  It becomes increasingly hard to care about the growing sense of forboding, as it is unclear if any of the characters are worth investing in.  Nina, the daughter, is the closest we have to a figure we can identify with, and that is only because she too doesn't fully understand what's going on.

On the whole, the book gives the sense that it would reward a careful second reading - the promised symbolism is notable without being easily decipherable, with the enigmatic Kitty a particularly cryptic cipher.  On the other hand it's a very passable first-read that keeps you going to the end.  I just worry it might not be attractive enough to draw me back to try and grapple with it's submerged depths.

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1 comment:

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