Swimming Home, By Deborah Levy

Reviewed,Julia Pascal
Monday 24 October 2011 17:50 BST

A strange girl arrives in an English family's villa in Nice. Kitty Finch is a beautiful, deranged botanist and would-be poet. Her presence, which is often naked, causes chaos. Is she mentally ill or a genuine artist?

The formula of a stranger's arrival destroying a marriage may seem traditional, but Deborah Levy's storytelling is allusive, elliptical and disturbing. Her gift is to show how one person can raise the substructure under a husband and wife's relationship and profoundly affect their daughter's growth into womanhood. Not only is the novel an exploration of a seemingly failing marriage; it is also a probing into the nature of childhood trauma, exile, depression and creativity.

Levy's sense of place is never romantic, rather a means of isolating the English in France to examine them forensically. She exposes how actions rebound on future generations and how damaged individuals are attracted to their mirror image, leading only to mutual destruction. Levy takes us into this subconscious world with delicacy and without judgment.

Her touch is gentle, often funny and always acute. The prose style is spare and fresh. Swimming Home is told from multiple viewpoints and several generations. At the centre is poet Joe/Jozef Jacobs, whose sketchy, hidden history, as a Jewish child in the Polish woods, throbs dangerously. Levy's characters, from Joe's daughter Nina, whose menstruation catapults her into the world of sexuality, to the 80-year-old doctor Madeleine, offer a wide range of female experience which is painfully authentic. What is particularly strong is the way Levy upends expectation. The cuckolded wife, Isabel, is no victim. She is a war correspondent who perhaps colludes in her husband's infidelity to make her own escape.

Is their marriage as bad as it appears or are husband and wife complicit in its demise? Does Isabel invite Kitty into her house to allow Joe to seduce the girl or is her action innocent?

This amazing novel is a haunting exploration of loss and longing. It ends with the adult Nina's terrifying understanding that she can never know when the past begins and ends. And it is this recurring theme of past-in-present that Levy writes about so skilfully. She is also strong on suspense, leading the reader to a hugely surprising end.

Swimming Home reminded me of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.Although a short work, it has an epic quality. This is a prizewinner.

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