Picture this—A dark road in a mountainous area, in the South of France at night. It’s summer. The sound of insects in the dark. A couple is talking in a car. The woman, Kitty Finch, is driving the car. The conversation is slightly off. The atmosphere brooding. That’s how Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home begins. Then it rewinds and we learn how the two people ended up in the car together. In the first chapter a red-haired woman swims naked in a pool. The people who have rented the villa to which the pool belongs are watching her. They have no clue who she is. Finally, Isabel, a war correspondent, and the wife of a famous poet, Joe, jumps into the pool, grabs the young woman by her ankle and forces her to leave the water. Other people have watched the scene. An elderly therapist,who rents the villa next door, Joe, the famous poet, Laura and Mitchell, family friends, and Nina, Joe’s and Isabel’s teenage daughter. Kitty Finch tells them that there was a mix up in the dates. Jurgen, the caretaker of the villa, has made a mistake. They are all enthralled by Kitty Finch, her striking red hair, her beauty, her green finger nails and the fact that she skinny dips in the pool of strangers as if it was the most natural thing in the world. But what is even more surprising – Isabel offers her a spare room.
Inviting a mysterious stranger is daring at the best of times, but inviting someone who behaves as oddly as Kitty Finch is downright reckless. Soon it’s obvious that her presence upsets an already fragile balance and people start to show what they were hiding behind their masks. The reader senses—something bad will happen.
Writing more would spoil this wonderful book. I truly admired Deborah Levy’s understated style. The book felt fresh, uncluttered, like a well-aired room. Everything she writes reminds you of something but proves to be very different in the end. People never say what you would expect them to say. On the other hand Swimming Home was one of those books I couldn’t read without being constantly reminded of other books or movies. I suppose that’s because the setting, the South of France, is so charged with meaning. I was reminded of Françoise Sagan’s novel Bonjour Tristesse, which has equally unhinged characters, desire and raw emotions at its heart. The movies La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling, came to my mind as well.
I also liked that Deborah Levy used so many point of view characters. The POV changes in every chapter and it’s not always clear who is the main character. Kitty Finch who serves as a catalyst for each of the other characters or Nina, the teenage daughter on whose POV the book ends? Or the poet who seems to occupy the emotional centre?
I’ve owned a copy of this novel for some time, but Violet‘s recent post was the reasons I picked it up finally.
46 thoughts on “Deborah Levy: Swimming Home (2011)”
I’ve heard good things about this from many bloggers – I shall keep my eyes open for a copy!
I really liked the writing. And it’s a short book anyway.
I read this a few years ago Caroline after hearing a lot of positive. I was underwhelmed by it at the time. I’d forgotten I’d read it and then when I read your post a bell went off.
I liked it better than I thought I would. I’ve just been in Nice recently and it brought back a few memories. That might have been part of my liking it as well.
I enjoyed this at the time though my recollection of the character of Kitty is that I liked the book in spite of her rather than because of her. I think I found her uncomfortable to read – but I guess she was supposed to be!
I’ve know people like her and in real life they make me run, but the way she was portrayed was so good.
I read this one a couple of years ago and liked it very much. You’ve hit the nail on the head with your comments about people never saying what you might expect – that lack of predictability gives it an edge. I enjoyed the brooding atmosphere too. That’s a great comparison with the Swimming Pool film…there’s definitely something of Ludivine Sagnier’s character in Kitty.
I can still visualise the elderly woman who lives next door…
I’m glad to hear you’ve liked it too. It had a mix of predictable setting and unpredictable behaviour that I found absolutely arresting. I might even read it again some day. Have you read anything else by Deborah Levy?
Not yet, but I have a collection of her short stories, Black Vodka. The title story was up for the BBC National Short Story Award – there’s a link to an audio reading of it here if you or anyone else is interested. It’s a good one.
So great! Thanks a lot. I’ll certianly listen to it.
We read the opening of this one at a writing workshop and I was fascinated by it – but somehow never got around to reading the rest. Maybe this will give me the much-needed push. You said it reminded you of a lot of other books/movies, Caroline. Do you mean that it is a bit derivative?
Yes, a little derivative but maybe it’s a pure coincidence. Maybe she’s never read Bonjour Tristesse or watched the movies but it would be astonishing if it was a coincidence. And she likes to play with expectations, so it could be a very consscious choice.
I think it’s fascinating and even more when you read the whole and everything becomes clear. I hope you’ll read it. I’d love to know what you think of it.
I enjoyed Swimming home too and I was also strongly reminded of Bonjour Tritesse.
I’m glad that you say that. I thought the similarities were quite striking.
I thought of the movie The Swimming Pool the whole time I read your review. I do like unpredictable characters, so would probably enjoy this.
I think it’s a very fine piece of writing. A unique style but still a story that makes you turn the pages. And the end is anything but predictable.
I read this a few years ago ….whilst on holiday in S of France . Thought is was fantastic book which abs captured the tensions in a mother /daughter relationship . Wonderful writing .
I agree. It’s fraught with tension but the writing’s clear and limpid.
I remember after reading Violet’s review thinking that I wanted to read this.
An unusual stranger entering a group and causing changes is a common literary theme but it really has son much potential.
I agree that changing points of view usually do enhance and shed light on a story.
I hope you’ll read it. All of the charcaters felt so rounded even those who had only a page or two. I guess in this case, the fact that someone offers a room to Kitty Finch already indicates things are wrong.
This has long been on my radar, and is in fact on a shortlist I have of books to read in the first half of this year. Do I need do you think to read/watch Bonjour Tristesse first? Should I watch The Swimming Pool? I feel underprepared, but enthused by your review to make sure I do get to this as planned.
I’m certainly looking forward to your review. I don’t think you need to read any of the books mentioned or watch the movies, but it would probably be interesting to compare them. It’s been a while that I watched/read them and I’m tempted to go back and discover all the parallels.
From everything I’ve read about her, I don’t think the similarities are a pure coincidence.
The good thing though – a movie is watched quickly and Bonjour Tristesse is a very short novel.
Bonjour Tristesse is a great book, Max.
There’s something like Francis Scott Fitzgerald in Sagan’s writing.
Wonderful review, Caroline. I loved your comparison of the book to a uncluttered, well-aired room. That description tempts me very much to read the book. The plot is very interesting – a stranger being welcomed into someone’s home and then strange things happening in that house – what is not to like.
Thanks, Vishy. Yes, totally – there’s a lot to like. It’s refreshing to read books like this. I need to read more of her. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
I’ve been looking forward to your review! I absolutely loved the Deborah Levy I read (Things I Don’t Want To Know) and I really like the way you describe her style, which is exactly how it came across in the essay/memoir. I’m happy to say that I own a copy of Swimming Pool and I hope very much to get to it soon. My tbr is outrageous at the moment, however I take heart from the fact I found her very quick to read but very deep – an unusual combination but one of the most pleasurable to me.
It’s so true. I felt exactly the same, easy to read but deep. I was over at yours looking for a review of this. I had a feeling you didn’t review it but went looking anyway.
I’m looking forward to hear what you think. Funny enough, although I find Josipovici isn’t as good as she is, this reminded me of In a Hotel Garden.
Lots of praise in your review and in the comments, that’s good to know.
But the South of France…Again? *sigh*
I know. But it’s worth reading.
I was looking forward to your comment, Emma – on how British folks idolize the South of France and what you think about it 🙂
South of France is iconic for Brits, it provokes a range of reactions (including that one of course).
I always thought Bonjour Tristesse a film for some reason.
You’d like Bonjour Tristesse, I think.
I’m pretty sure it has been made into a movie. But you should read it first. Don’t miss it because it’s a great introduction to a great writer.
I liked this as well, partly possibly because Levy manages to take such a hackneyed scenario and make something original and interesting of it. I liked her collection Black Vodka much more.
You’ve reminded me I picked up Bonjour Tristesse last year….
I was a bit afraid when I started that it would be too similar to other books but she surprised me.
I’ll have to keep Blakc Vodka in mind then.
I’m keen to hear what you think of Bonjour Tristesse.
I love the premise of this book but switching points of view make for a somewhat difficult to follow story line if it isn’t clear who’s talking. I’ve read The Forgotten Garden recently and while I did love the story, it threw me off a bit when I had to switch tracks and get used to a new set of characters (and timeline!) over again.
Thsi sisn’t like that at all. It feels very natural. I haven’t read The Forgotten Garden but I know books with that type of structure. This is different. I think you’d like her writing style.
Like Guy, I was underwhelmed when I first read this, but I must admit it stuck with me and I went on to read one of her earlier novels, Billy and Girl – and now have another couple waiting to be read!
I can see how you could be underwhelmed but I think it appears simpler than it really is.
And it’s memorable. I’ll certianly read another one.
I wondered why this book sounds so familiar–it was longlisted for the Booker a few years ago and my library even has a copy–will be grabbing it for sure. You make it sound quite appealing. I like stories told from a variety of perspectives and that move backwards like this one seems to do–filling in the gaps. Wonderful review!
Thanks, Danielle. I’m sure you’ll like it. The setting is wonderful and to follow these strange charcaters walking around in it is captivating.
Interestingly the copy we have in the library which was published in 2011 has a cover that says Swimming Home and Other Stories. Now when I look it up in Amazon it is listed as Swimming Home: A Novel so they have repackaged it (with a nicer cover, too)
I saw that other cover but you’ll see this one is very fitting.
I’m looking forward to read your thoughst on this. But – no pressure. 🙂
Oh, we have the UK 2011 edition, too…. Poor short story collections–they just don’t sell here it would seem.
Or anywhere else for that matter. It’s sad, isn’t it?
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