Straight away, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy presents us with a story that is both familiar and unknown. We are in Nice in 1994, where two families are sharing a villa for the summer. Joe Jacobs, the elusive, famous poet, his war-correspondent wife Isabel, and their teenage daughter Nina make up one family. The couple staying with them – the overly organised Mitchell and Laura – make up the other. All happy and cliché. That’s until they find a woman swimming naked in their pool. Invited to stay in the spare room by Isabel for unknown reasons, Kitty Finch, with her green fingernails and direct comments, quickly intrudes on their family holiday and begins to reveal the cracks below the surface of these middle-class families.
But a few pages in, and you’re already pretty confident you know what’s going to happen. The two marriages will be tested if not ruined, Nina will somehow get wrapped up in it all with her teenage hormones, and Mitchell’s gun under the bed will not stay put. Predictable. We’ve heard this kind of story before. Except we haven’t. It isn’t until right at the end with a final twist that we realise how wrong we were to think that Swimming Home is what you predicted it would be.
Yet what makes this book simultaneously frustrating and compelling, is not the revelation of our wide-off-the-mark assumptions but the uncomfortable feeling you get when you read it. You don’t know what makes you uncomfortable or where it comes from.
One of the consistent themes of Levy’s work is that not all is what it appears, that there is something lying under the surface that we are not being told. Isabel plays the part of a happy wife, mother and career woman while inwardly wrestling with her own identity. Mitchell and Laura’s seemingly well-organised life is actually in tatters. Joe is more unstable than we think. Kitty is a mystery that is never fully worked out. Its originality lies in what Levy choses to disclose and what she reveals, of which character and when. The reader keeps trying to second-guess the characters and the plot but is deceived right up to the end, revealing our ill-made assumptions about what kind of story Swimming Home will be.
There is an interesting exploration within the book of the interweaving of sexuality and mental illness, although what the exact connection is difficult to discern. Kitty’s tendency to wander around naked makes her body the object of examination as well as of judgement about her vulnerability and mental condition. She appears as a mute, male fantasy but is doll-like, she seems vulnerable but is an agent of change. Nina is on the verge of sexual awakening, who is fascinated but intimidated by Kitty. Joe, on the other hand, uses flings with his various girlfriends to forget his thoughts and troubled past. When the long-awaited love scene between Kitty and Joe final occurs, Kitty is oddly distracted, noticing every possible sound outside the hotel room, detached from the sexual act. It is almost as if she is not present sexually, as if she is detached from her own sexual appeal and desire. This contrasts sharply with Joe, who, through sex with Kitty, comes closer than ever before to realising what he has been contemplating for years – suicide.
While sex seems freeing or at least is a mode for exploring mental illness, the home is a place that is unstable and unsure. Nina and Joe seem to have a close relationship in their happy home of two with Isabel always away. But we quickly learn all is not as rosy as it initially appears. In comparison, Isabel never feels at home, constantly detached from the worlds she inhabits. Mitchell and Laura’s facade of control and organisation is slowly destabilised as we find out Mitchell was squandered their money and they will have to close their shop. Kitty’s own homelife seems on the verge of being emotionally abusive. “Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely,” Kitty says more than once, but in this novel, home is a space that is uncertain and insecure.
But the explorations of sex and home are just one level of Levy’s intriguing, multi-layered book. Beneath it is another layer concerning thought and self-awareness. Behind the novel’s concerns for female public nudity, for domestic control and stabilisation, the facades of happy families, and the importance of remembering the past, is the weight of realising what you have been mentally grappling with but have been unable to fully grasp. Levy slowly and subtly adds layers of thought to Swimming Home, but thought that is not fully formed, not fully expressed or concluded. It is this incompleteness, this elusiveness which is what makes the reader feel uncomfortable. That feeling of the characters not fully saying everything, of only revealing to themselves and us as readers part of the truth. We are constantly stabbing in the dark, thinking we know what is going on but wrestling with the feeling that everything is not what we think it is.
But maybe this is Levy is trying to show us something very difficult to convey – the slippery, evasive, and partly unknown nature of mental illness. How depression can subtly shake or crack the foundations of seemingly healthy, successful individuals. How we make assumptions about people like Kitty Finch, when they are often wide-off-the-mark. How our own thoughts, our own identity, our own mental health can be difficult to fully grasp or understand or even express to ourselves let alone others.
Levy takes on the challenging topic of the weight of what is left unsaid and it definitely leaves you thinking. Swimming Home is an unnerving yet thought-provoking read that leaves you simultaneously satisfied and disturbed.