When I noted on Goodreads this past Sunday that I had finished reading Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, Rebecca commented that she was looking forward to my review. I replied that I was eager to write it because on finishing it, I had no idea what I thought about it. I needed to work on a review to figure it out.
Levy’s short novel—a mere 150 pages long—covers a week in the lives of two British families sharing a vacation home in France. Their week is disrupted when a young woman named Kitty Finch turns up swimming naked in their pool. Kitty, as it turns out, is already familiar with one of the vacationers, the poet Joe Jacobs, who is there with his wife Isabel, a journalist, and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina. Kitty knows Joe through his poems; she feels he’s talking to her. And she’s brought a poem of her own to continue the conversation.
The characters in Levy’s novel are exactly the sort of characters I find difficult to believe in. When Kitty first appears, they mistake her for a bear and discuss shooting her. When they learn she’s a botanist, one of them, Joe, starts quizzing her about Cotyledons and how she’d describe a leaf. And they invite a strange woman, found swimming naked in their pool, to stay with them. Who does this?
Another problem, I think, is that the novel is both too spare and too overstuffed. Levy gives us little more than the bare bones of the characters. But there are too many characters to explore, and most of them never seem to matter. Besides Joe, Isabel, Nina, and Kitty, we also have Mitchell and Laura, the shopkeeping couple who are sharing the house with Joe and his family. And there’s the neighbor, Madeleine Sheridan, a retired doctor whose past experience with Kitty makes her suspicious of her presence now. The hippy caretaker Jurgen, on the other hand, is fond of “Kitty Ket,” and local cafe owner Claude is his sounding board. The trouble with the large cast (large for such a short book, that is) is that the four characters whose story carries the most emotional weight—Joe, Isabel, Nina, and Kitty—are too often thrown into the background. I believe these supporting characters are intended to shed light on the main characters by letting us see others’ reactions to them, but their observations, while illuminating, get too much page time, especially given that their feelings are easily discerned.
However, weaknesses in characterization aside, Levy does some interesting things with plot and structure, particularly as it regards the four people I consider the main characters. When the novel begins, we learn right away that Joe and Kitty will become intimate and that they will take a drive together. Levy opens the novel with that drive and returns to it twice, and it’s only after that third recounting of the drive that we start to understand what’s happening in the characters’ minds in that moment. That ending, which will come as a surprise to some, is telegraphed rather clearly throughout the novel, but only if you know what you’re supposed to be looking at. (I was not entirely surprised by the ending because I picked up on a couple of hints.) Because much of the novel’s power rests in the shock of its ending, I wonder if those nonessential characters are meant to keep readers off the track. Something about that feels like cheating to me. I think it’s that the distracting characters only seem to work as distraction. They don’t seem otherwise essential. And here I am complaining again, when I was supposed to be getting into what I liked about the book.
As I skimmed through the novel a second time, preparing to write this review, I noticed several elements (beyond the one or two hints I spotted on my first reading) that point clearly to the novel’s eventual conclusion. One thing that’s worth taking note of is the idea of liminality. The pool from which Kitty is dragged by Isabel is a liminal space. It’s where Nina goes when she starts her period. Kitty, in fact, is the person who takes Nina there, because Kitty herself is a sort of liminal figure. Laura describes her as “a window waiting to be climbed through.”
In one of his poems, Joe writes that “a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.'” Personal histories, known and unknown, weigh heavily on these characters. Nina is making the transition from childhood to womanhood, and much of her history has yet to be written. Isabel considers her own history and decides that “if she could choose to unlearn everything that was supposed to have made her wise, she would marry all over again and have a child all over again and drink beer with her handsome young husband on this city beach at night.” But would she have the same young husband and thus the same child?
This question, like so many surrounding Isabel, is barely hinted at. She is, in some respects, the most interesting character in the book, but her story is almost entirely lost in the noise. As a journalist, she goes into some of the most dangerous areas of the world and reports on what she sees. She seems to need to save people, but her motives are mixed. When she pulls Kitty out of the pool, she scratches her. Salvation at Isabel’s hands leaves scars. What are we to make of her motivations?
As I finished this book, I wasn’t sure what I thought of it, and as I’ve finished this review, I’m still not sure. Levy has taken obvious care taken in constructing a plot that is both inevitable and surprising. And on closer examination, the significance of some elements that seem extraneous does emerge. With more thought, I might find that even the weird summary of the plot of ET: The Extra Terrestrial and the trapping of Nina’s toy rabbit are important. (Could ET be another liminal motif? Transitions between worlds? Is there something in the notion of trapping a false rabbit instead of a real rat?) I can’t dismiss a book that includes so much to chew on. But I find it difficult to love a book whose pleasures are only evident on the second look.
I’m torn. The novel’s subtlety is one of the things I like about it. But I’m not convinced that the subtlety isn’t built on smoke and mirrors. Strip away the distracting weeds, and the novel’s conclusion is obvious. Are the weeds, then, a feature or a bug?