Deborah Levy (2011) Swimming Home And Other Stories, High Wycombe; 176 pp.; eISBN 978-1-908276-06-3
Joe and Isabel Jacobs and their young teenage daughter Nina are on holidays in a villa just outside Nice in the south of France. Family friends Mitchell and Laura are staying with them. Joe is a famous and successful poet, and Isabel a war correspondent who has spent long periods away from home. Nina is closer to Joe as a result. Mitchell and Laura run a shop selling exotic guns and poor world artefacts to Londoners with more money than sense. As the novel opens, these characters come upon something floating in the villa’s pool. It’s a woman, Kitty Finch, naked and primal, and also we quickly realise, off her tree.
Kitty is no stranger to the villa and fabricates an excuse for her presence. In reality she has written a poem, called Swimming Home, which is intended for Joe and which she is keen to discuss with him. Joe is a philanderer and Isabel asks Kitty to stay with them, hoping that this will provoke a situation where Isabel can make a clean break from Joe.
The villa’s caretaker Jurgen is infatuated with Kitty and has known her for some time. A retired doctor next door, Madeleine Sheridan, also knows Kitty and was instrumental in getting her admitted to a psychiatric hospital after their previous encounter.
As the story unfolds, we learn some things from Joe’s past that hang like a cloud over his life, things that Kitty also knows and which are incorporated into her poem. Nina, despite her youth, seems to be the only one who is clear about Kitty’s intentions but no one is listening to her. Mitchell and Laura feel threatened by Kitty, but there is never much clarity about their perceptions. From her balcony next door, Madeleine looks down on the drama as it unfolds but is helpless to intervene. The others are too driven by their own desires and old demons to take any sensible advice. As in a Greek tragedy, fate must take its course.
Kitty develops a closeness with both Nina and Joe, but all the time with a view to getting Joe to accept her poem and its special meaning for him. Events come to a dramatic climax and the lives of the key characters will be knocked for six. In the final chapter set seventeen years later, Nina reflects on events at the villa and the seeming inevitability of people’s fates. She would love to shield her young daughter from what life has in store, but she knows that is a pipe dream.
Deborah Levy writes well. There are some excellent descriptive passages and the plot moves along at a good rate. There are sufficient complexities and twists to keep the reader’s attention. The fatal fault is the poor development of the characters. None of them is particularly likeable – though that is no bar to a convincing story – but none of them is particularly plausible either.
Joe’s history is never explored in sufficient detail to make his motives and actions understandable. Isabel’s desire to leave him has no origin that can be discerned from what we know about her. Nina is more a Greek chorus than a fully-fledged person, with Madeleine playing one of the gods looking down on the follies of mankind. Kitty is the most fully depicted character but her motivations are opaque and her madness is not a sufficient excuse for that. Mad people sometimes have lucid insights into the state of the world, but how and why has Kitty acquired her knowledge of Joe and his desires?
Characters appear and disappear in a very contrived way. Whenever Kitty goes over the top, Jurgen the stereotypical German hippy is suddenly there to calm her down and take her off. We never understand why Mitchell and Laura are close to the Jacobs family, nor what motivates them. Laura is close to Isabel, but Mitchell does not seem to get on with anyone. Why would you invite such people on holidays with you? They are the types you travel to get away from. Mitchell has a breakdown towards the end of the novel, but nothing has prepared us to accept that he is capable of such emotional depth.
Modern novels tend to be short, perhaps in line with diminished attention spans and competition from other distractions. In this case Levy’s story would have benefited from being longer in order to flesh out the players in more detail and make them more convincing. She certainly has the skills to do this. Maybe next time.