Friday, September 13, 2013

Swimming Home

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy, is an engaging novel whose sparse writing reads like a play. Indeed, the author, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012, is an accomplished playwright. The small number of characters make their appearance two by two in each chapter much as actors upon a stage.

In a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mark Haskell Smith explains:

Much like in a play, Levy doesn't gently introduce the characters or the setting, instead she stomps on the gas, peels out, and sets everything in motion in one of the first scenes as the cast discover Kitty skinnydipping in the pool. At first they think she might be a bear, but it soon becomes apparent that she is a young woman in her 20s...It is a grand entrance and sets the tone for the sexual tension that underscores the novel like a throbbing techno track ("Always Raining: On Deborah Levy's 'Swimming Home,'" December 11th, 2012)

The novel is set at a villa on the French Riviera. There are five main characters.  Kitty Finch, the  woman described in the above quote, has recently suffered a mental breakdown. She is a seductress, stalking Joe Jacobs, a poet of Polish-Jewish descent who is staying at villa with his wife and daughter. Joe is also a tormented soul. When the Germans invaded Poland during WWII, Joe was just five years old. In an attempt to save his son, his father abandoned him in the forest and told him he must never return home. Joe survived in the forest alone. Although he becomes a literary success, he suffers from disabling depression and had difficulty with emotional intimacy.

His wife, Isabel, would be the first to attest to this. She is a foreign correspondent who goes to the most troubled spots on the globe. Like her husband, she has seen the worst in human nature. Even from the vantage point of an adult, it has altered her view of life.

She was in the middle of her life, she was nearly fifty years old and had witnessed countless massacres and conflicts in the work that pressed her up close to the suffering world...Yet even without witnessing firsthand the terrors of Rwanda, she had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again. (p. 31)

Their child, Nina, is a prepubescent girl who tries to care for her father during her mother's long absences from home. She loves him but cannot understand the depths of his sadness. She resents her mother, who in a sense, has abandoned her.

The other main characters in the book are Isabel's friends, Laura and Mitchell. Mitchell's compulsive spending has bankrupted this couple. His passion for guns and shooting animals portends the tragedy to come.

Swimming Home is a psychological thriller that grapples with many of life's big questions. How does one maintain love in a long marriage? How can parents protect the innocence of their children? How can optimism be preserved in a world where evil is pervasive?  Deborah Levy explores these themes through well-defined characters, a non-linear plot and an ending that is as shocking as it is unexpected.

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