This is my first read from the Booker Prize shortlist, a book that fell into my hands during a recent visit to London. I have been aware of Deborah Levy’s work for some years, though outside the mainstream, so seeing it being nominated in the Booker list, it was one title I felt a definite connection to, there being only two degrees of separation between Deborah and I.
Hers is an interesting story in light of recent perceptions that much literary fiction is or has fallen out of favour now with pressure on publishers to go with titles that are likely to make significant if not mass profits. Her previous publishers neglected to take on this title because, as she said:
‘the fear among those who admired it was that Swimming Home was too literary to prosper in a tough economy … to be fair, there was quite a bit of agonising, but in the end Marketing and Sales won the argument.’
In my earlier post What is Really Harming Literature, I mention the commodification of literature, something the publisher of Levy’s latest book And Other Stories developed in response to. For a set fee, members subscribe to the publisher, kind of like a club and elect whether to receive two or all four of the titles they will publish during the year. You won’t know who the authors or the books are until published, except that they are international fiction, either in English or translated, and of the type the publisher believes is being ignored by mainstream corporations.
The selection of titles passes through an open consultative process which agents, interested members of the public, writers, friends, colleagues contribute to, so as a subscriber you are invited to contribute to the choice of future books to be published. The first copies are limited edition, so all subscribers receive not only a potentially excellent book, but something of a collector’s item as well.
Swimming Home for all that, I found a relatively easy, medium paced accessible read, with enough story to keep the reader intrigued, while delving into the various characters, two families staying in a French villa on holiday; Joe the home based poet, his war reporting and frequently absent wife Isabel, their teenage daughter Nina and their friends who own a struggling shop in Euston, Mitchell and Laura.
Their relative tranquillity is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kitty Finch, a young woman due to rent the villa a week later, whom they allow to stay, despite her collection of Joe’s poetry books on display in her room, her tendency for skinny dipping and resistance to taking a prescribed medicine.
It’s a story of repression and denial, all the characters appear to be hiding something, carrying unspoken baggage, whether a problem, resentment or obsession which Levy somehow with her brilliant but sparse use of language gifts the reader with an understanding that is more than the sum of words on the page.
I was struck on the very first page by an example of this and realised this was a book I would likely need to read twice, because there is much to discover in the way she is able to capture so much in one sentence. Here is the opening line of the book and the second sentence from the third paragraph. We already have a strong sense of Kitty, who though perhaps the least repressed character, is the most dangerous.
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…
She asked him to open his window so she could hear the insects calling to each other in the forest. He wound down the window and asked her, gently, to keep her eyes on the road.
Even the author herself only shares parts of conversations in dialogue, the rest narrated by a character adding an element of unreliability as we dip into multiple perspectives and have to rely on the thoughts of characters all of whom have some kind of hidden agenda.
During seven days we learn more about each of the characters as we watch them interact and ponder the significance of that body found floating in the pool at the beginning of the story and wonder how all this silent yet volcanic like tension is going to erupt.
Yesterday he had watched her free some bees trapped in the glass of a lantern as if it were she who was held captive. She was as receptive as it was possible to be, an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare. Every moment with her was a kind of emergency, her words always too direct, too raw, too truthful.
There was nothing for it but to lie.