Book Review: 2012 Shortlisted: Deborah Levy's Swimming Home

Rating: 4

Swimming Home

A Novel by Deborah Levy

2012/157 pages (115 on the Nook)

At a mere 115 pages on my Nook, I was expecting Swimming Home to read like a short story.  It didn’t.  I was expecting the characters to be largely glossed over, because truly, how much depth can you offer a cast when the novel is so fleeting?  They weren’t.  I was also expecting the story to be overly simplistic, with quick conversations and rapid-fire situations.  It wasn’t.

In short, Swimming Home might be my biggest surprise on the 2012 Man Booker Shortlist.

The book opens with a bang.  It’s summer in the French Riviera.  Villa renters happen upon a naked woman floating in their pool.  One of the villa inhabitants invites her to stay in the spare room.  Motive for this, at the outset, is unknown.  It’s clear, however, that the dynamic force of the novel has been introduced right at the start.  Kitty Finch, new guest of this sprawling villa, is far from stable.  How will she impact Joe and Isabel, their daughter Nina, and their friends Mitchell and Laura?

How could she not?

A dark tale of depression and the trauma it offers, Swimming Home takes nothing lightly.  While watching the villa inhabitants unravel as a result of their interactions with Kitty, you may feel like a spectator at a slow-motion traffic accident.  Isabel extended the invitation to Kitty to stay.  Why?  She clearly wished for no further interaction with this odd and deeply troubled woman.

In short, Isabel saw Kitty as an opportunity to catch her philandering husband Joe, a famous poet, in the midst of one last final insult.  It should bring about her departure from their damaged marriage.  As a reader, I wanted Isabel to escape.  I wanted to see Joe humbled.  Unfortunately, Kitty’s invitation brings about much, much more.

What struck me more than anything was Deborah Levy’s deft character development.   Sound, structured, and emotionally charged writing allowed Levy to create a world that has great power to impact the reader.  I found myself caring more for these flawed people (and their eccentric neighbor Madeleine), than all of the characters of Garden of Evening Mists combined (another 2012 Man Booker nominee).  Swimming Home proves that you don’t need verbose prose to paint a picture.  You don’t need endless chapters to show a character’s complexities, struggles or heartbreak.

If she could choose to unlearn everything that was supposed to have made her wise, she would start all over again.    -Isabel Jacobs

I thoroughly enjoyed Levy’s observations and reflections.  Love a book that makes me think!

After reading a number of books on the 2012 Man Booker nomination list, and wondering why in the world they were included, it was refreshing to read one that belongs.  Swimming Home is not uplifting.   It’s not amusing.  It is, however, profound.  It’s also a contender for this year’s Man Booker, and I believe that it has a good chance of winning.