Is that a bear - or a Kitty - in the pool?
None of the other characters is sympathetic or even likable, yet they are uniformly convincing and human. Levy consistently provides telling pen portraits, as when elaborating on the villa’s disorganised caretaker. “Jurgen was a German hippy who was never exact about anything. He described himself as ‘a nature man’ and always had his nose buried in Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.”
So Kitty, having been invited to share the villa by Laura the war correspondent, who clearly thrives on conflict, unleashes her intense ardour on Jacob, poet and serial adulterer. Nina battles her hormones.
All is not well. Interestingly, it is Nina, not Kitty who emerges as the shaky heart of the tale. It is she who thrives on a drama far subtler than the extreme behaviour of Kitty, who above all wishes Jacob to read her poem. Nina faces a crisis. She ponders a new hell: “if her parents quite liked each other after all it would ruin the story she had put together for herself.”
Recent displays of affection between the unhappy couple have unsettled the girl. “She had seen them kissing in the hallway like something out of a film, pulled into each other while moths crashed into the light bulb above their heads.”
It is a wonderful image, only Nina is not thinking about moths. “As far as she was concerned, her parents tragically couldn’t stand the sight of each other and only loved her.”
Swimming Home is closer in language, tone and imaginative drive to The Unloved than to any of Levy’s previous fictions, such as Ophelia and the Great Idea (1989) and Swallowing Geography (1993), which at times echoed Angela Carter’s erotic gusto. Discontented children have long been among Levy’s themes, as has the sensation of yearning. In The Unloved, another group of holidaymakers also gathers in France, this time in a chateau at Christmas, and a murder takes place.
Levy has returned, after a long silence, to a slightly similar frame. The novel was first published last November by the new independent imprint And Other Stories and was thus thought, mistakenly, to be a collection of short stories. Now the paperback has now been copublished by And Other Stories and Faber.
Levy can tell a story, no doubt about that, but it is her use of language, as well as her subversive streak, that makes her intriguing, even a bit dangerous.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent