Book Review - Swimming Home

When philandering poet Joe Jacobs (“known to his readers as JHJ”) finds himself thrown together with a fragile, young botanist, Kitty Finch, an unsettling connection is established. Joe, holidaying in the French Riviera with his wife Isabel, fourteen-year-old daughter Nina and their two friends Mitchell and Laura, first encounter Kitty floating in the villa’s pool. Initially, they think she is dead but then she emerges naked from the water and turns all their lives upside down.

After Kitty claims there has been a mistake with the rental dates and that all the hotels are full, Isabel invites her to stay with them. It turns out that Kitty is actually a fan of Joe and has come to the villa with the express purpose of meeting him. She wants him to read her poem Swimming Home. Joe and Kitty share a poetic sensibility and a history of depression and it is this emotional bond that triggers a series of events and confrontations that are to end in tragedy.

Deborah Levy’s narrative is tightly structured, meticulously detailed and rich in metaphor and symbols. Pebbles with holes take on a dual meaning, while the hemlock Kitty collects - beautiful but deadly - comes to represent herself.  Each character is integral to the plot, even the German hippy caretaker Jurgen and the elderly neighbour, Madeleine Sheridan, who watches them all from her balcony, have their parts to play.

Levy reveals her characters’ states of mind through casual observations, a glance, a blush or nervous tic. For Joe, Kitty is “an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare” while the distrustful Laura describes her as “a window waiting to be climbed through. A window that she guessed was a little broken anyway.”

Just as often, a character’s sensibility is revealed through musings on what they don’t know. Despite their long marriage, Joe has to ask his wife if she likes honey: “He would poke his paw inside every hollow of every tree to scoop up the honeycomb and lay it at her feet if he thought she might stay a little longer with him and their cub.”

Kitty may be the catalyst but Nina and her rites of passage are also central to the novel. As she grapples her way through the fog of deception and desire, created by the adults, Nina undergoes a profound experience that is to mark her for life.

Dark, sometimes humorous, intriguing and tragic, Levy’s tale held me captive from its dramatic beginning to its sorrowful conclusion.

Originally published in The Tablet Magazine 12 Nov