DEBORAH LEVY’S NEW BOOK Swimming Home is constructed like a play — with a central stage and a cast of characters, and it unfolds like a drama in hot short vignettes — but it reads like a novel, and Levy jumps in and out of her character’s heads with such ferocious abandon that the story becomes a sun-splashed psychotic episode, an exploration of desire turned masochistic and lives propelled by the arrhythmic pulse of insanity.
That there is an inherent theatricality to the presentation shouldn’t be surprising. Levy is a noted playwright, the author of Macbeth — False Memories and Honey Baby Middle England, among others. The swimming pool serves as the main stage — a platform for arrivals and departures, bee stings, skinny dipping, misunderstandings, and menstruations — and there is a French country house attached to the pool where more intimate moments unravel.
The cast of characters lounging around these locations would be at home in the plays of Richard Greenberg, the works of Patricia Highsmith, or say, one of those “English abroad” comedies starring Dame Judy Dench and Dame Maggie Smith. On one side is Joe Jacobs or J.H.J. or Jozef Nowogrodzki, a famous philandering poet, Isabel, his nomadic war correspondent wife, and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina. On the other side is Isabel’s longtime friend Laura and her porcine husband Matthew, a hunter who kills because “It takes my mind off things.” To say that Joe and Matthew dislike each other would be an understatement. But then Joe and Isabel are grappling with a marriage in free fall and Nina is, well, a teenager.
Like the jesters and gravediggers in the plays of Shakespeare, local bumblers provide the comic relief; in this case it arrives in the form of a pair of hashish besotted locals, the caretaker of the house, Jurgen, "a German hippie who was never exact about anything,” and Claude, the owner of a local café “who had only just turned 23 and knew he looked like Mick Jagger.” Overlooking it all is a misanthropic neighbor who spies on them from her terrace.
Swimming Home has the hallmarks of a conventional bourgeois drama about bickering spouses and their torpid love lives, but Levy isn’t interested in convention. She’s interested in something much darker, and so she turns this setup on its head by introducing Kitty Finch, a bolt of sexual methamphetamine.
Much like in a play, Levy doesn’t gently introduce the characters or the setting, instead she stomps on the gas, peels out, and sets everything in motion in one of the first scenes as the cast discover Kitty skinnydipping in the pool. At first they think she might be a bear, but it soon becomes apparent that she is a young woman in her 20s. “In a blur she could see the woman’s breasts were surpringly round and full for someone so thin.” It is a grand entrance and sets the tone for the sexual tension that underscores the novel like a throbbing techno track. Kitty claims to be in their pool due to a mix up in the rental schedule. Since Kitty has nowhere to stay, Isabel offers her a spare room in the house.
It soon turns out that Kitty is not just a mental patient who has gone off her meds, but an aspiring poet and obsessive fan of Joe’s. She has in fact stalked him to the south of France in the hopes that he’ll read one of her poems. Like a lot of stalkers, she feels a special connection to her q...read more