Deborah Levy’s novel about a twenty-something daughter and her ailing mother is one I’m going to be pondering for a while. Much like Levy’s previous novel, Swimming Home, this is a book that I’m not sure that I liked, but I’m finding a lot in it to think about. It’s an ambiguous sort of story, where the characters’ actions don’t make logical sense, and it’s not entirely clear how trustworthy anyone is.
The narrator, Sofia, has studied to be an anthropologist but is currently working in a London coffee shop and helping her mother, Rose, cope with a mysterious illness that has left her unable to walk. The mystery is not just Rose’s apparent paralysis but the fact that it comes and goes. To try and figure out what’s wrong, Rose has taken out a mortgage on her house, and she and Sofia have come to Spain to meet a specialist. While the specialist, Gómez, spends time getting to the bottom of Rose’s illness, Sofia is free to get to into a strange romance with a local woman, visit her father, and think about what she might do if her mother no longer needs her.
It’s clear early on that Rose’s illness is as likely to be in her head as in her body. What I wondered, however, is how much of a role Sofia has in keeping her mother sick. It’s not that she deliberately acts to keep her mother wheelchair bound. It’s more that she doesn’t question her mother’s version of events, whether they involve her illness or her divorce. By staying by her mother’s side, Sofia is able to avoid moving on and making the hard decisions that come with adulthood, and she’s able to have the moral high ground over her father who got religion and abandoned them both.
So with all of that in play, the sojourn in Spain is as much about Sofia finding a cure as it is about Rose. Circumstances require Sofia to learn to drive, to confront her sexuality, to make mistakes and see the consequences play out. She gets a chance to see her father for the first time in eleven years. This freedom is what she wants, as she herself knows:
I want to get away from the kinship structures that are supposed to hold me together. To mess up the story I have been told about myself. To hold the story upside down by its tail.
Levy fills this book with lots of odd incidents, but I couldn’t always work out what, if anything, they’re supposed to mean. Jellyfish, known also as Medusas, figure prominently, stinging Sofia when she swims, which she does even when flags are up warning of their presence. Medusa turns those who see her into stone, and Sofia seems to have turned herself into stone as she tends her mother. And the way to vanquish Medusa is through beheading, an idea that becomes important later on.
I find Levy a hard writer to really love, but I continue to find her writing interesting. I think this novel holds together better than her previous one, especially if approached as a character study of Sofia, rather than of Rose and her illness. Little observational notes scattered throughout the book show that Sofia is the real object of study, and the eventual revelation of who’s doing the studying makes for a satisfying conclusion.