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Novel set in Alpes-Maritimes, France (“..a small, hot, chaotic world..”)

20th June 2014

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy – novel set in Alpes-Maritimes (and Nice).

IMG_1729Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012, this is a short novel set in the Alpes-Maritimes. A family story set in 1994 in a villa with a pool. It’s hot, it’s dreamy, it’s holiday time. What’s not to like? Plenty, as it happens. Although, I have to say, the French setting is really well rendered, you can stroll down the Promenade des Anglais with the other holiday makers, amble past the Hotel Negresco and enjoy the beach and the sun and the ice creams… Definitely a novel set in the South of France.

Joe, Isabel and daughter Nina are living in a villa above Nice with their friends Laura and Mitchell (who have a shop in Euston, though quite why the reader needs to know this is never explored). One day they find stranger Kitty Finch floating naked in their swimming pool. She may be dead, but she isn’t. Isabel, despite this initial unfortunate encounter, nevertheless asks Kitty to stay with them and she is given a small room without any bedding or hanging space (ah, we are going to explore Isabel’s passive aggressive character; but that is the last we hear of that). Kitty moves in to her room and lines up some of her battered books, which happen to be the works of Joe, who’s is a famous poet. Ah, possible stalkerish intent, now there is a real prospect that the story is warming up.

Nina, aged 14, gets her first period and turns up in Kitty’s bed saying “I’ve started’. Bear in mind Nina and Kitty only first met on Saturday and this is max 48 hours later, Monday, so it kind of stretches credibility that Nina would do this. Mum Isabel, who is a hardened war correspondent (she..”had witnessed countless massacres and conflicts in the work that pressed her up close to the suffering world”), goes off and spends the whole morning (note a WHOLE morning) searching out serviettes hygiéniques for her daughter. No, it beggars belief that a woman who has negotiated several war zones is likely to struggle to this extent to find sanitary towels.

Neighbour Madeleine Sheridan has already had previous encounters with Kitty and has pronounced her mad. Madeleine keeps a close eye on everyone. We know that there might be mental health problems for Kitty because they are well illustrated: recurrent naked episodes and a vase of rabbit tails. Then there is Claude and his Mick Jagger looks (remind me, how many times are we told about the similarity?), who chatters on with Jurgen (the concierge of the villa) about, among other things, ET. He draws a parallel between Kitty’s mental connection with poet Joe, and ET’s connection with his human boy. Ah, thank you, the symbiosis between Kitty and Joe is now illustrated and established.

There are allusions to Freud’s theory of lust and death – and death does stalk the pages a bit. Voyeurism pops up briefly, too, in terms of viewing others through a hole in a pebble; and there is an undertow that Joe might bed Kitty at some point (after all, he has form, the author describes that Nina can smell his father’s girlfriends in their house in West London when her Mother is on one of her frequent absences – she’s a war correspondent, oh, but you know that already).

There are random observations, some are repeated time and again, and add nothing to the overall picture: Joe has a specialist parfumier (“..who married a man who owned two show horses in Bulgaria.”) and the parfumier has created a scent especially for him; people spoon horseradish into their mouths or, at a pinch, apricot jam; Mitchell and co have a shop in Euston (oh, you know that already); Joe (originally Jozef Nowogrodzki) came to Whitechapel when he was 5 years old ..why, why, why add these snippets and just leave them dangling… frustrating in the extreme, and pointless.

This book is a stab at writing a surrealist plot, a tableau of happenings, if you like. The writing itself is extremely good and I was going to say the content of the next book will blossom when this author has more life experience under her belt; but having looked on her website, it is clear that this is unlikely to be the issue. She has many books to her credit.

This book took me straight back to the days of A level (Baccalaureate) texts, which required appraisal and subtext analysis. Depending on the text, that was generally a chore. This book, although not a chore to read as such, has far too many random associations and lacks real and meaningful substance.

The title of the book comes from Kitty’s own poetic works, which she really wants Joe to read. After all, that seems to be the real reason why she insinuated herself into the family. I leave you with three lines from her work that for me sum up my disconnected experience of the book:

My mother says I’m the only jewel in her crown                                                                                                                 But I’ve made her tired with all my etc,                                                                                                                                      So now she walks with sticks

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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