Review: Swimming Home

Excess baggage that spoils a holiday

By Jennifer Lipman, September 19, 2011

By Deborah Levy
And Other Stories £10

A family holiday is the setting for Swimming Home, Deborah Levy's musing on depression, loyalty and the impact a stranger can have.

Two couples, one with a daughter on the verge of adulthood, gather in a villa in rural France for a summer of secrets, hostility and delicate pastries. From the outset, it is clear that this is not going to be a dream holiday - at least, not in the conventional meaning of the phrase.

The couples are not ideally matched, their friendship too tenuous. And, with the arrival of a mysterious temptress called Kitty Finch, everything is thrown into upheaval. Poet Joe Jacobs - himself with a past he has not yet come to terms with - is drawn to the newcomer and yet also repulsed. His daughter Nina is enthralled, while his wife Isobel becomes ever more withdrawn as more light is shed on Kitty's personal life.

Meanwhile, the consciously worldly Mitchell and Laura - owners of an exotic goods "emporium" -- contemplate their not all together perfect relationship.

Swimming Home is not for the casual reader of fiction. The writing is challenging, the characters far from likeable, and the title in no way indicates a series of strokes towards some comfortable conclusion.

But, as a study of how just one minor change can alter an entire situation, or of whether personal melancholy is ever capable of being contained, Levy's book -not much longer than a novella - is stimulating.

She has a poetic and melodious style that perfectly captures the oppressive heat of a foreign stay and the tension that can flow from an unfamiliar place and the anxiety created by an unexpected situation.

Her characters, too, are well-drawn and highly individual. Laura, for all her pretensions, cooks Delia Smith recipes; Joe speaks in angry and childish capital letters despite his status as a respected poet.

And the minor players are a delight, from the lazy caretaker to the self-infatuated café-owner Claude, who was 23 and "knew he looked like Mick Jagger".

Jennifer Lipman is a JC reporter

Last updated: 1:41pm, September 19 2011