Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

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Swimming Home Shortlisted for 2012 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: villa, family, darkness, France, depression

Swimming Home is a simple story with complex undercurrents. It is set in a French villa where two couples are sharing a holiday together. The book opens with them discovering a naked woman in their swimming pool. The woman claims to have rented the villa too and after a discussion about the mix up they agree to let her stay, leading to the classic “stranger in the house” narrative.

My main problem with the book was that I couldn’t engage with any of the characters. They weren’t described in sufficient detail for me to be able to picture them and there seemed to be too many for this short book. It is described as a dark, disturbing tale, but I was so distanced from events that I didn’t care when something distressing occurred and had no empathy for any of the characters, no matter how bad their problems were.

Much of the book deals with depression, but I felt that it kept sidestepping the issues and I never gained any real insight into the situation.

The women feeding their children with long silver teaspoons glanced curiously at the silent brooding woman with bare shoulders. Like the waiter, they seemed offended by her solitude. She had to tell him twice she was not expecting anyone to join her. When he slammed her espresso on the empty table set for two, most of it spilled onto the saucer.

The writing was good, with some wonderfully observed metaphors and many vivid descriptions, but there was no forward momentum and I frequently found myself losing interest. Another frustration was that the entire book was based around a poem, one which the reader never sees.

An introduction by Tom McCarthy states that Deborah Levy has:

…..read her Lacan and Deleuze, her Barthes, Marguerite Dura, Gertrude Stein, and Ballard, not to mention Kafka and Robbe-Grillet – and was putting all these characters to work in new, exhilarating ways.

Unfortunately I haven’t read many books by these authors and so am clearly missing out on all the parallels. As a book on its own Swimming Home is quite dull, but if you take it as a reflection on the literature of the last hundred years, it is probably genius.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Dark, dangerous and unknowable, this novel, like the pool at its centre with its covering of fallen leaves has hidden depths and dangers that might just make it the dark horse on this year’s Booker list. Just William’s Luck

…the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling. Reading Matters

Short yet dense, this delicate novel is a tense and edgy read whose poignant ending leaves its readers unnerved. The Unlikely Bookworm

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  1. Tony says:

    This is the one And Other Stories offering I haven’t got around to, but from the reviews I’ve read, it is starting to polarise a little (after the initial unanimous praise). It’s fairly clear that people who like a plot dislike this, and that people who aren’t overly concerned with plotting adore it.

    I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

    1. Jackie says:

      Tony, I think your assessment is correct – anyone who doesn’t need a plot will love this book. I’m a big fan of plots and so am torn on this one. I can see its merits, but it wasn’t a favourite of mine. I think you’ll love it.

    2. Georgia says:

      Tony, I don’t think that the polarising has to do with plot. You should read it first and you’ll see what I mean. It has a very strong plot, as you are trying to discover what Kitty Finch is aiming to do there and there is a very big plot climax towards the end. Jackie, I am sorry you couldn’t engage with any of the characters, it has happened to me with many books and I know the feeling. Not with this one, though.

      1. Jackie says:

        Georgia, I agree there is a plot and a certain amount of foreboding throughout the text, but the plot is so simple that those of us who love complex narratives are a little disappointed. There is no forward momentum to keep the reader turning the page – you have to enjoy each paragraph on its own merit. Glad you were able to engage with the characters :-)

    3. kimbofo says:

      I’m not sure that’s why the book polarises. Indeed, the book has a strong plot and there’s plenty of momentum to make it a page turner — if only to find out what Kitty, who is an intriguing creation, is going to do next. I think it’s more to do with the fact that the book is so short — there’s not enough flesh on the bones, if you like that sort of thing — and the characters are relatively thinly drawn. Indeed, a couple of them simply fall off the page after they’ve been introduced. And while I quite like prose that is skeletal and stories that don’t spell everything out, leaving the reader to do quite a lot of work, in this case I just didn’t care enough about the story to enjoy it. In fact, the storyline — middle-aged couple with marital problems find their ordinary lives shaken up by a young, provocative stranger — extraordinarily dull. But that’s just me ;-)

  2. Sandy says:

    Just from that excerpt, I can see what you mean. The writing seems to lack warmth and texture. The plot sounds intriguing, but if you don’t care what happens to the characters, it is all for nothing.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I don’t know about lacking texture, but it certainly lacks warmth. I love getting inside the head of a character and growing to love them, but that didn’t happen here. Shame.

  3. cbjames says:

    This is two dud reads in a row for you, yes. At that point I often turn to classic science fiction or a good-old hard-boiled detective novel. ;-)

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, Don’t worry about me – I’ve found something great to read now :-)

  4. Jenners says:

    Based on your review and the blurbs at the end, this seems like a book that leaves poeple feeling conflicted!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, Yes – and I always think that is a good sign :-)

  5. Chinoiseries says:

    Based on your review, I would’ve expected a lower rating. So, plot or no plot? Momentum or no momentum? I’ve got an e-galley of this waiting for me, will return later to compare notes.

    1. Jackie says:

      Chinoiseries, “Based on your review, I would’ve expected a lower rating. ” That’s why I like to include a star rating on my reviews. Sometimes (as above) I can find a lot of faults in a book, but still admire other aspects of it. I’ll be interested to see what you make of it.

  6. JoV says:

    I wanted to chase up my colleague to borrow this… on second thought, maybe not. if you don’t like it, I’m not sure if I will do… :)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I’d still recommend that you borrow a copy – it is a very short read and is one of those books that generates conversation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  7. Just finished reading this myself and was distinctly underwhelmed. I agree with your review, there didn’t seem to be anything driving the book forwards and the characters weren’t believable. The lack of plot didn’t bother me too much, but I felt it lacked depth too. Not impressed I’m afraid!

    1. Jackie says:

      Liz, Glad to hear I’m not alone :-)

  8. markbooks says:

    Jackie – phew! – I was starting to think I was missing something, as I’m a huge fan of the And Other Stories output, but this just didn’t quite do it for me. It’s not so much the plotlessness, but exactly as you describe – the lack of empathy I felt for the characters. Superbly written, but I just didn’t care enough to wade to the end. Personally, I thought ‘Happiness Is Possible’ (another AOS book this year) was vastly, vastly more engaging. All that said, I’m delighted to see ‘Swimming Home’ on the Booker shortlist, if only to give AOS the plaudits they deserve, and unfairly missed out on when the mighty ‘Down The Rabbit Hole’ was overlooked last year…

    1. Jackie says:

      mark, This is my first ‘and Other Stories’ read so it is good to know that you enjoyed the others much more. I haven’t heard of ‘Happiness is Possible’ before, but ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ seems to be everywhere and is on my wishlist.

      Empathy with the characters is very high on my reading priority list and so that is what disappoints me most about this book. Not everyone needs to connect with characters in the same way I do though – seems to be a big dividing line and I’ll be interested to see if the Booker judges have this problem or not.

  9. Couldn’t agree with you more Jackie. Maybe I should have tried reading it in longer chunks, but I just couldn’t picture the characters, spent a long time working out who was who and eventually cared little about what happened to them. Meanwhile I couldn’t help feeling that there was an enormous large metaphor for Kitty (was she the poem?) that I had missed.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nicola, It is good to know I’m not alone in my thoughts on this one. I’m sure I missed out on loads of symbolism and I’m afraid I didn’t understand the purpose of the poem. It all just annoyed me so much! Perhaps you can come back if you can ever discover what it all means!

  10. nomadreader says:

    I adored this one, but I can see how others might not. I normally like strong character development, but there was a voyeuristic eeriness to this one, and I enjoyed looking at the characters without really looking into them. The writing really wowed me though, and I am eager to read more Levy.

    1. Jackie says:

      nomadreader, This one divides opinion, but I’m glad you were able to appreicate it. I’m not sure Levy’s sparce style will ever be for me, but I hope you enjoy her in the future.


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