Sunday, June 2, 2013

Levy’s Cruel Swim Home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, a 2012 Man Booker Prize finalist, is the sort of book I enjoy: two not-especially-happy couples on vacation/holiday in the south of France have their vacation disrupted by a not-so-happy young woman whom they find swimming, naked, in the pool. I certainly wouldn’t recommend Swimming Home to those legions of readers who seem predisposed to seek out fiction with positive, happy characters and outcomes… but I seem to have a taste for Levy’s relentless dark humor and characterizations.

The gist of Swimming Home is that the nude swimmer, Kitty Finch, a would-be poet and botanist, busts in on what’s supposed to be a holiday near Nice (hmm…) for Joe and Isabel (he’s poet and she’s a journalist who covers “countless massacres and conflicts”) and Laura and Mitchell (London-based purveyors of “primitive Persian, Turkish and Hindu weapons. And expensive African jewellery.”). Rounding out the ensemble are Nina (Joe and Isabel’s profane and menarcheal daughter), Jurgen (caretaker), Madeleine Sheridan (elderly neighbor), and Claude (nearby café guy). Other factors: depression, weaponry, family dynamics, and desire, something that seems so obvious I probably would have forgotten to mention it if I hadn’t reread Tom McCarthy’s brief introduction to the book.

Still, it’s not plot that makes Levy’s writing so appealing to me. It’s her stylistics and the diabolical things she asks her characters to say, think, and do. When I randomly opened the book just now, for example, on the left side I found Kitty, in the company of young Nina, giving Madeleine Sheridan the finger after doing a “spooky” thing that involves leaning backward and shaking her head and hair very fast. Then there’s the line “Kitty Finch was mental.” A new chapter, entitled “Medical Help from Odessa,” begins on the right side. Here’s the chapter’s first paragraph:
Madeleine Sheridan 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. Her nails were crumbling, her bones weakening, her hair thinning, her waist gone for ever. She had 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.
Swimming Home is filled with wonderfully nightmarish scenes like these… it’s particularly fitting that its final paragraphs invoke wishes for sweet dreams.

Up Next: Maybe Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, another darkly humorous book…

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