Becky Lees, Arnolfini Bookshop Assistant, reviews 'Swimming Home' by Deborah Levy, which was discussed in January with the Arnolfini Book Club...
"Swimming Home initially appears to have a glamorous atmosphere – two families on holiday, staying in a villa in France, when a beautiful stranger, Kitty, is invited to stay. But on further reading, the themes and emotions in this book are far from glamorous; they are challenging, undiscussed and dangerous.
This is one of those rare books that you want to immediately read again, and only improves after a second read. What is perhaps most rewarding is a further look at the characters, their secrets and their motives. For a book with only 176 pages, there are a lot of characters but all are necessary to the plot as it unravels.
Unusually for two families holidaying together, they do not seem to be very close. The main family include Joe, a poet haunted by his past, his war-reporter wife, Isabel and their coming-of-age daughter, Nina. Their ‘friends’ Laura and Mitchell accompany them on the holiday, and their own financial worries become apparent. The presence of Kitty, in amongst this group, seems to be the catalyst for secrets being revealed. She becomes close with Joe, helped by her prior knowledge of him which is both unsettling and illuminating, and also with Nina, as she grows up and looks to Kitty for a mothering role that her own mother seems to struggle with providing.
Both Kitty and Joe suffer from depression but Levy portrays the different effects of this illness. Kitty is an open book – she is attention-seeking, loud, often naked and slightly terrifying; whereas Joe is very much closed off - it appears as though no one knows about Joe’s sadness and if they do try and talk to him, he brushes the topic away. Later in the book, we realise how much Nina knows her father – he is almost single-handedly raising her, and she knows the days when he is suffering and can’t be strong. Although Isabel, his wife, has noticed the themes in his poetry, it takes Kitty, the stranger, to bring Joe’s feelings to light.
In a broad sense, Levy seems to highlight the distances that people create between themselves throughout this novel. Isabel has chosen not to acknowledge her husband’s troubles perhaps out of fear of what she might uncover but this allows a distance between husband and wife. Isabel looks to other family scenes to imitate with her own daughter rather than forming a natural relationship with her. They have invited friends, who seem to be more acquaintances, and then a complete stranger on holiday with them – is this to distract from spending time as just the three of them? However, Kitty seems able to cross these distances. There is power in truly knowing someone and a freedom in that too…but that doesn’t always make for a happy ending."
- Becky Lees.