Is that a bear - or a Kitty - in the pool?


FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews Swimming Home By Deborah Levy And Other Stories/ Faber and Faber, 157pp. £7.99

IN 1994 A FAMOUS poet and his equally famous war-correspondent wife, with their possibly troubled 14-year-old daughter, rent a villa for the summer on the French Riviera. Also invited are a couple who are about to close down their London shop specialising in designer furnishings made from African weapons.

Into this Man Booker- shortlisted novel, with its potential TV-drama material about a marriage unravelling during, predictably, a July heatwave, enters a very odd girl, Kitty Finch, first seen floating in the pool, which is more like a pond and had been carved from stone.

The holidaying party, on seeing the body, wonder if it is a bear, as only the previous day there had been a newspaper article about a bear that had wandered down from the hills “and taken a dip in a Hollywood actor’s pool”.

Bear or not, the intrepid reporter Laura dives into the water, watched by daughter Nina, who then reflects: “Saving the lives of bloated bodies floating in rivers was probably the sort of thing her mother did all the time

. . . Her mother disappeared to Northern Ireland and Lebanon and Kuwait and then she came back as if she’d just nipped down the road to buy a pint of milk.”

The limp body in the pool suddenly bursts into life and, on climbing out of the water, scrambles for her clothes. Kitty Finch has eye-catching waist-length red hair. She is also naked, a state to which she often reverts throughout the narrative. She knows the villa well, as her mother back in London cleans for the woman who owns it.

Swimming Home should be a witty middlebrow beach romp. Had it been written by any number of lesser British writers, it would have been exactly that. But it is more. Deborah Levy has a sophisticated Pinteresque touch; she is also anarchic and reinvents cliches with spectacularly clever results. This is a mature narrative, echoing Levy’s earlier novel The Unloved (1994), and moves with ease between various viewpoints.

The juxtaposing of the disturbed Kitty – a botanist who also writes poetry and is interested in the much older famous poet – with the poet’s edgy daughter Nina is particularly effective. The younger girl is fascinated by Kitty’s strangeness and drawn to her candour. “Do you think I look like a bear, Nina?” asks Kitty, who then “clenched her right hand as if it was a paw and jabbed it at the cloudless blue sky”.

The story progresses in sharp, self-contained scenes, and the exchanges are brilliantly done.

Born in South Africa in 1959, Levy is an accomplished playwright, and this is evident in the quality of the dialogue, in the pace and in the nuanced gestures she accords her characters, as unhappy a bunch of holidaymakers as one is ever likely to meet. It is a confident performance, knowing without being irritating. Levy needs only one sentence, with a casual nod to Scott Fitzgerald, to convey the communal mood of the place: “The days were hard and smelt of money.” Elsewhere she makes inspired use of an elderly female doctor, Madeleine Sheridan, still astute and quite an expert on Kitty’s mental health. The doctor, however, is also weary of life and “was trying to pay for a scoop of caramelised nuts she had bought from the Mexican vendor on the esplanade. The smell of burnt sugar made her greedy for the nuts that would at last, she hoped, choke her to death.” The doctor muses on having turned into a toad in old age, “and if anyone dared to kiss her she would not turn back into a princess because she had never been a princess in the first place”.

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