Sun, Suffering and Savagery
- Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Faber/And Other Stories, second edition, 160 pp, £7.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 29960 7
The swimming pool we all know, blue and rectangular. And the body, ‘floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade’. The family around it, Joe Jacobs the father, Isabel the mother and Nina the teenage daughter; Mitchell and Laura, the family friends invited on holiday with them. ‘Is it a bear?’ Joe asks, half-jokingly; the party has been discussing a news story about a bear that walked down from the hills one day to take a dip in a Hollywood actor’s pool. But Nina can see that it’s ‘a woman swimming naked … on her stomach, both arms stretched out like a starfish, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body’. So far, so calm and regular. And yet, I can already feel panic rising in me. Always, already and for ever, events have slipped completely out of control.
If you’ve already read this novel you’ll know that a terrible undertow slowly reveals itself. You’ll know it now, but probably you missed it, as I did, the first time, as you missed the heavy winter suit Joe was wearing when he dropped in at the house of the woman next door. The sugar mice, the cherry print on Nina’s new bikini. The ball of hair in the Andalusian almond soup. The impact on everybody of Isabel’s cool job as a television war correspondent ‘up close to the suffering world’: ‘She was in the middle of her life, she was nearly fifty years old and had witnessed countless massacres and conflicts … She had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again.’ The impact of Joe’s profession as a Polish émigré confessional poet. Of Mitchell and Laura, antique dealers from North London, boring, rather foodie, with an interest in old guns.
The swimming pool, Levy warns us, is ‘more like a pond’ than pools usually look like in shiny brochures. But still, we think we understand what we’re seeing: the villa, the pool, the white recliners on the hot, dry terrace; ‘the bittersweet smell of lavender’; the family and their auditors, ‘light-headed in the fierce heat’. And then, the woman emerging, like a mermaid, ‘with dripping waist-length hair’: is this not a story we’ve all heard and seen before? You think of other suns, other pools with baking terraces, the ancient pines behind: Betty Blue, The Birth of Venus, Bardot on the roof of the Casa Malaparte in Godard’s Le Mépris. You think about the sorts of thing that happen to the English gone to the sunny south for their holidays, light and wine melting together dream and waking life, the ‘early humans’ living in the mountains all around. Is this stereotype, is it cliché, is it a truth so old and unchanging it has taken on the force of myth? The trouble is, all these questions head in completely the wrong direction, missing the real focus of the action. Life, as usual, is happening somewhere else.
Who is this naked young woman, this Kitty Finch? Levy certainly lays on the symbolic apparatus: as well as having a ‘wealth of hair’ she’s a ‘sort of’ botanist, and has dark green fingernails, and is often seen trailing her latest weedy trophies. (There’s also, in the outfit Kitty wears in the novel’s culminating scene, what must be a deliberate allusion to Phaedra, the girl with the fairy wings in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – Levy has worked in theatre and film, and the acute sense of dramatic structure in this novel is one of the things that makes it seem so familiar and yet so fresh.)
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