“Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely. But you tried and you did not get home safely. You did not get home at all.” ~ Kitty Finch 

As I turned the final pages of “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy (2011), I felt an intense sense of disquiet.

Released by And Other Stories – an independent British publisher, Swimming Home is a beautiful drama that is fraught with tension. It is intense, unsettling and devastating.

The story revolves around a typical British middle-class holiday in the French countryside where things are set in motion when a naked, nubile Kitty Finch turns up in the villa pool and is invited to stay by Isabel Jacobs.

Isabel is a war correspondent and part-time wife to the famous poet Joe Jacobs and mother to their teenage daughter Nina. As the story unfolds, it is clear that there will be no point of return in her awkward relationship with her philandering husband.

Reading Swimming Home is like watching a disaster that you know is going to happen, yet you cannot – and do not want to – avert your eyes from the oncoming carnage. Elegantly expressed by Joe Jacobs, a Holocaust survivor: “It was an impossible flirtation with catastrophe, but it had already happened, it was happening. It had happened and it was happening again.”

The story is told from the perspectives of its principal and secondary characters, leaving the reader to put together the puzzle pieces that will explain what binds the middle-aged poet to the wild Kitty, a self-proclaimed botanist, as well as other secrets.

I enjoyed Levy’s prose, which is both precise and brilliant. For instance:

Yesterday he had watched her free some bees trapped in the glass of a lantern as if it were she who were held captive. She was as receptive as it was possible to be, an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare. Every moment with her was a kind of emergency, her words always too direct, too raw, too truthful.

There was nothing for it but to lie.

In an intimate exchange between Joe and Kitty, a fitting reference is made to Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Il pleut” (It’s Raining), one of the poems in the Calligrammes collection.

Il pleut
Il pleut des voix de femmes comme si elles étaient mortes même dans le souvenir
c’est vous aussi qu’il pleut, merveilleuses rencontres de ma vie ô gouttelettes
et ces nuages cabrés se prennent à hennir tout un univers de villes auriculaires
écoute s’il pleut tandis que le regret et le dédain pleurent une ancienne musique
écoute tomber les liens qui te retiennent en haut et en bas

Translation by Roger Shattuck:
It’s Raining
It’s raining women’s voices as if they had died even in memory
And it’s raining you as well marvellous encounters of my life O little drops
Those rearing clouds begin to neigh a whole universe of auricular cities
Listen if it rains while regret and disdain weep to an ancient music
Listen to the bonds fall off which hold you above and below

When Joe asked Kitty why she likes this poem:
Kitty: “Because it’s always raining.”
Joe: “Is it?”
Kitty: “Yeah. You know it is.”

Perhaps you have figured out by now that the subject of depression – its influence on those that are inflicted with it and resulting effect on those around them – plays a significant part in Swimming Home?

I wasn’t planning to write this post so soon as I wanted to make a photo featuring the book cover, like how I’ve always done. Then I came across this music video featuring Lykke Li, with its haunting strains of “don’t you let me go tonight, let me go tonight”.

For more reviews of Swimming Home, which was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize:

  • Los Angeles Review of Books: Mark Haskell Smith draws an analogy between Swimming Home and a play. In the novel, the leading and supporting characters are put under a revolving spotlight, with the main stage being the pool in the holiday villa
  • The New York Times: Francine Prose warns that readers should “resist the temptation to hurry up in order to find out what happens during and after Joe and Kitty’s wild ride along the coast because “Swimming Home” should be read with care”.
  • Financial Times: Ben Eastman deconstructs this complex tale that has been spun from a conventional plot
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16 replies on “Deborah Levy: Swimming Home

  1. Very tempted to read this. You write good reviews. Maybe you can get Amazon to pay commission for sales linked to hour blog. My only problem is that I just add yet another one to the backlog. Kitty sounds fun.

    1. It’s a short read – shouldn’t take more than half a day of uninterrupted reading. I started on it while waiting at the airport in Venice and finished it just before the plane landed in Brussels 🙂

      Thanks for your encouragement – book reviews, as well as posts on art/exhibitions, don’t come readily for me. Glad you enjoy them!

          1. Thanks for flagging this! It was my pre-breakfast read. There are some things that I agree with (e.g. competitive society, materialism, discontent), but I disagree with the main statement/observation of Singapore being a “misery city” and Singaporeans being unhappy and uncaring. Let’s see if BBC will publish the comment that I sent 🙂

      1. I have. I now have 61 books lined up for next year already! Not that I’ll be able to do the 130 for this year. Nope. Prospects look dim. I wish I could write reviews like you. I’m writing reviews like the salespersons review books – ‘Oh it has laughter, romance and thrill and everything to keep you hooked!’

        That is certainly not the way to review books. I must change my ways. Thank you for showing me how.

        1. Wow, that’s quite a queue. More important to read books that you enjoy than just ticking off numbers, which I’m sure you already do.

          Thank you for your compliments! Maybe the few swigs of single malt whisky I had when I was writing this post made some difference 😉 Writing book reviews doesn’t come naturally nor easily to me, but I like practising to write and this is also a good way for me to remember why I like certain novels so much.

          1. “More important to read books that you enjoy than just ticking off numbers, which I’m sure you already do.”

            This.

            I’ve realized that I’ve set quite an impossible target for myself and I’m just killing myself in pursuit of it. The joy of reading is not there. I might just tone down and go for a 52 book challenge.

  2. This is a terrific post. The undercurrent of depression is not lost on me, but beyond such currents—the kind determined to pull me under—I find ways to move and live. I sense this juxtaposition in the title of the novel because I believe so many of us are trying to swim home…

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