I am normally not a fan of Booker Long List of Short List nominations. I tend to find them boring to get by and honestly do not see the fuss made around them sometimes. However, when I started reading one of this year’s shortlisted books, I began to see the light, at least for that book. “Swimming Home” by Deborah Levy is an outstanding nominee for this year’s much awaited literary prize.
It did not take me long to finish the book, however I am still thinking of the book and the characters, so definitely the impact that it’s had is huge. “Swimming Home” is a powerful, almost offbeat book about the impact of an outsider has on the relationship of two couples, who are sharing a vacation home in the Alps-Maritimes. The idea that presents itself strongly in the book is sense of home, love and most of all whether or not one will make it back home, more so in the metaphoric sense.
London poet Joe Jacobs, his war reporter wife Isabel and their fourteen year old daughter Nina, are renting a holiday villa near Nice with friends, Laura and Mitchell. One day they discover a naked woman swimming in their pool. She has nowhere to stay and Isabel inexplicably offers her the spare room. And thus Kitty Finch becomes a part of their vacation – bordering on the line of being invited and intruding. At the same time there are minor characters that add to the substance of the book – their neighbour Dr. Madeleine Sheridan who is vexed by Kitty’s arrival, Claude – the local pub worker who has taken a liking to Nina, and the caretaker who is besotted with Kitty.
Kitty is enigmatic – in the sense that she walks around naked, is off her antidepressants and considers Joe to be one of the greatest living poets. She wants him to read her poem, “Swimming Home” – she feels that she has a connection with Joe. The reader on the other hand is left wondering about Kitty’s so-called seemingly love or obsession with the poet. Joe tries to avoid her but cannot. Nina is in awe of Kitty and wants to understand her more than anyone else. Laura and Mitchell do not like her presence. Isabel on the other hand, somehow is indifferent to her presence, fully aware of her husband’s attraction to Kitty. Nina on the other hand emerges to be the sanest and sorted character in the entire book.
The book plays itself out on so many levels. At times you are scared for the characters and what might happen and at others you want them to not care and life to play itself out. Readers can only wish how they would like the story to end, but at the end of the day, I strongly believe that characters decide what they want.
Deborah Levy uses the setting brilliantly. I am sure any writer would, but she plays with it, moulds it like clay and places her characters skillfully in it. She answers some questions that nag readers, some she leaves for their speculation and others aren’t answered at all. Questions such as: Why did Isabel invite Kitty to stay? Why is Joe hesitant to discuss Kitty’s poem? Why does Isabel stay with Joe considering she is never home, given the nature of her job? Why is Nina the way she is? The book is so tightly woven, that the answers are found and sometimes not throughout this one hundred and fifty-seven page of a read.
The startling intimacy between characters is scary sometimes and yet it is almost that the intimacy decides who ends up with whom. Natures are revealed during the course of the book and every character encounters his or her chaos. Everyone is searching for their own space and whether they get it or not is the haunting question.
My favourite portion of the book, which according to me sums the book:
“Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.”
With this, the characters learn how to cope. Some grow up and some are forever trying to deal with their tragedies. Everyone is trying to know themselves and the others and somehow cannot. The prose of the book is haunting and will keep you hooked. For a short book, it clearly speaks volumes of the human condition. I definitely would like to see, “Swimming Home” win the Booker Prize.