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Deborah Levy: Swimming Home

Kitty Finch claims to be a botanist but she really is not. She has visions and likes to wander round naked. She is also stalking poet Joe Jacobs. Joe Jacobs (real name: Jozef Nowogrodzki) is a great poet and he knows it. He also likes attractive women. Such as Kitty Finch. He encourages his daughter to say fuck. His wife, Isabel Jacobs, is a well-known war correspondent. When she finds Kitty Finch swimming naked in the pool in her holiday home near Nice she invites her to stay and then, at dinner time, goes off to Nice, to leave Kitty to Joe. She hopes that he will have an affair with her so that she can finally leave him. Nina Jacobs, their daughter, has just had her first period. She is not sure which of her parents she would prefer to die but she thinks it would be her mother. Mitchell (he is not given a surname) loves eating and it shows. He and his wife, Laura, are staying with the man he calls the arsehole poet. Mitchell has numerous debts and is facing bankruptcy. He runs an expensive shop selling imports of Third World knick-knacks on the Euston Road. It runs at a loss and is continually having its windows smashed. Laura, his wife, maiden name Cable, who is six foot three inches tall, is thinking of leaving him. Jurgen, the German vegetarian marijuana-smoking caretaker of the holiday home, would like to be famous but has not got the time. He only really wants two things in life – to win the lottery and Kitty Finch. He won’t get either. Madeleine Sheridan will be eighty in four days. She has, in her view, done two worthwhile things in life – left her family to study medicine (she is a retired doctor) and left her husband to come and live in France. She hates Kitty Finch. And Claude, the twenty-three year old owner of the local coffee shop looks like Mick Jagger and he knows it. He gets expensive haircuts which make him look as though he has not had a haircut.

In some respects it is the usual people on holiday story. There are tensions, often sexual. People tend to grow to dislike more than like one another. Married couples fight. No-one is really enjoying the holiday though most of them pretend that they are. But it is also one of those strange person arrives and disrupts the group stories. Kitty Finch has been to this place several times before. Her mother, she says, is friend of the owner, Rita Dwighter, a psychiatrist who owns a string of houses in London and in France. It turns out that Kitty’s mother is actually Rita Dwighter’s cleaning lady. Kitty’s claims to be a botanist is also exaggerated – she had cut grass and cleared leaves in Victoria Park in Hackney. However, she does seem to be knowledgeable about plants. It is her knowledge – about plants but also about other things such as wall plaster and building foundations and the best place to buy ice cream in Nice – that attracts Nina to her and it is to her, rather than her often absent mother, that she turns when she has her first period. Jurgen is in love with Kitty, Joe wants to sleep with her and Dr. Sheridan hates her. We know that Kitty has mental problems. Dr. Sheridan had found her last year wandering about naked in Nice and had had her committed. Kitty had had ECT and hates Dr. Sheridan for this but she does not seem fully cured.

But the book is also about dreams. Levy quotes La Révolution surréaliste, No. 1, December 1924 – Each morning in every family, men, women and children, if they have nothing better to do, tell each other their dreams. We are all at the mercy of the dream and we owe it to ourselves to submit its power to the waking state. Many of the characters have dreams and visions, many of them disturbing. Kitty sees a black-haired fifteen year old boy in front of her bed, who walks off into the wall. Joe’s long since dead parents regularly appear to him in his dreams. Nina dreams of going to Kitty and finding her in her bed, her face swollen and her lip split. All of these dreams, of course, represent in some way the characters’ fears and worries.

The skill in this book is what is hidden just below the surface, like Kitty swimming naked in the pool. When the two couples and Nina first see Kitty, they think that she might be a bear, as they had just been talking about the story of a bear coming down from the hills and swimming in a Hollywood swimming pool. They next think that she might be dead and Isabel ‘rescues’ her. Throughout the book Levy skilfully suggests what lies just below the surfaces, with the dreams, the tensions between the characters and their concerns. Sometimes, of course, the tensions rise to the surface, as Kitty did in the pool, and things take a turn for the worse, as they will towards the end of the novel. It is a superb, understated novel, whose skill is often what is not said as much as what is said and a worthy contender for the Man Booker Prize.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Faber & Faber