How’s this for a killer opening line?
“When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.”
Set aside an afternoon’s reading time for Deborah Levy’s gripping Swimming Home.*
Swimming Home is the story of poet, Joe, his wife, daughter and friends Mitchell and Laura. The group has rented a villa in the hills above Nice, France for the summer –
“…the nights were always ‘soft’ in the French Riviera. The days were hard and smelt of money.”
However the holiday gets off to a strange start when they discover a girl in the swimming pool. The girl is Kitty Finch, a self-proclaimed botanist with a stutter and green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into their holiday.
“Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gasses seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.”
Without Levy’s superbly crafted words, the characters in Swimming Home could have bordered on painfully stereotypical – the pompous, intellectually superior poet; the sunburnt middle-class English tourist; the enchanting but deeply troubled ingénue.
“Mitchell with his flabby, prawn-pink arms amused her when he gloomily observed that Joe Jacobs was not the sort of poet who gazed at the moon and had no muscle tone. He could probably lift a wardrobe with his teeth. Especially if it had beautiful women inside it.”
My ‘no spoilers’ policy holds this review back to a certain extent. If the opening line wasn’t enough of a teaser, know that the blurb for the book reveals only the most obvious layer of this story – there’s lots going on, simmering under the hot Riviera sun, most intriguingly why Isabel, Joe’s wife, encourages Kitty to stay at the villa in the first place. There’s also some big themes including depression and fidelity, both played out initially through Kitty who yo-yos between appearing charming, dark and downright menacing.
Levy creates a fabulous sense of place – perhaps I’ve spent too much time around swimming pools but her words capture the heat-induced laziness that comes with summer, right down to bugs stranded in a chlorine haze on the surface of the pool. It brought to mind the 1996 movie, Stealing Beauty – although that movie was set in Tuscany, there are a number of parallels between the two, notably the vivid and lasting sense of place each creates.
So, how does this slim but thoroughly absorbing story weigh-up against the other novels short-listed for 2012 Man Booker Prize? I worry that it will be fall in the shadow of tomes such as Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies but I really hope the judges surprise us because Swimming Home is a fantastic read.
If I was sitting by the pool on the French Riviera, I’d be drinking a gin and tonic. Have I mentioned how much I love gin (in any format)? Here’s a refreshing gin and tonic jelly. I know, all kinds of awesome.
4/5 Short but not ‘sweet’. Gripping and unexpected.