The weather in the UK is exceptionally and unusually hot right now, and everyone has given up trying to cope or live a normal life and they are at the beach, or watching football and tennis on TV, and saying ‘gosh it’s hot’ all the time. So it seemed a good time to look at one of those books in which the heat is almost another character…
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved from stone by a family of Italian stonecutters living in Antibes. The body was floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade.
‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water.
His daughter, Nina Jacobs, 14 years old, standing at the edge of the pool in her new cherry-print bikini, glanced anxiously at her mother. Isabel Jacobs was unzipping her jeans as if she was about to dive in.
[Later in the same week]
People stopped to look at her. To gaze again at the vision of a radiant young woman in a green silk dress who seemed to be walking on air. Kitty Finch was almost as tall as Joe Jacobs. As they strolled down the Promenade des Anglais in the sliver light of the late afternoon, it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice.
commentary: The first extract is more or less the opening of the book, and it is a compelling setup. Two families are holidaying in a villa in the south of France, and this is what they find in the pool one morning. It is not a spoiler to say that it is not a bear, it is a beautiful young woman, and she is not dead at all.
She says she has turned up at the villa on the wrong dates. After an awkward pause, Isabel, the wife of Joe and mother of Nina, invites her to stay in a small unused room.
But the author is clear:
The young woman was a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway. Joe Jacobs had already wedged his foot into the crack and his wife had helped him…
When couples offer shelter or a meal to strays and loners, they do not really take them in. They play with them. Perform for them. And when they are done they tell their stranded guest in all sorts of sly ways she is now required to leave. Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart. A single guest was a mere distraction from this task.These passages are clever and well-written, but they come on page 12 & 15, and seem to pre-empt the whole book. (Not a spoiler, they are not exact descriptions of what will happen in the novel). This is a very literary novel - short-listed for the Booker Prize - but you could not for a moment accuse it of being one of those incomprehensible experimental books: everything is laid out for you, over and over again, hammered home.
I had very mixed feelings about Swimming Home. It was very short, and had some lovely phrases and sentences in it:
Kitty Finch’s eyes were grey like the tinted windows of Mitchell’s hire car, a Mercedes, parked on the gravel at the front of the villa.
Mrs Finch was Rita Dwighter’s right-hand woman, her secretary and cook, but mostly her cleaner, because her right hand always had a mop in it.But it was, you know, just a novel, like a lot of others, it didn’t seem to have anything extra to offer, it was extremely pretentious, and the trope of the outsider who changes everything is over-familiar.
I found an absolutely splendid review of amazon that summed up much of what I thought.. this is Ruby Soames – these are just the highlights:
"Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely." This is the basic tenet of the eerie, dark and expertly written story, 'Swimming Home'. And the book is only worth reading because we hope it will get better and we'll all get to the end quickly…
What kept me reading was the hope that the irritating and neurotic Kitty was going to slaughter them all in their beds.
If you are really into style, check out the Preface which is probably one of the most pretentious pieces of writing I have ever read."
The introduction, by writer Tom McCarthy, was indeed bizarre: why a contemporary novel of great clarity and simplicity needs such special pleading is beyond me, too.
As Ruby says, it IS expertly-written, and entertaining in its way, but it is also slight. Ideal for reading beside the pool at your holiday villa, before looking fearfully into the water…
Without even trying hard, I could think of a similar book that I liked better: Francesca Duranti’s Happy Ending, as cross-blogged by Chrissie Poulson and me in 2016. In that book, a beautiful young man turns up at a villa in Tuscany and changes the lives of all the residents.