Summer in Paradise Goes Awry
“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”
― George R.R. Martin
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is short—not even 200 pages—but it is deceptively simple. On first glance, it is the story of a British family spending the summer in France and the unexpected guest who threatens their ties. It is also a psychological novel that jumps right in and gives us a taste of each character’s stream of consciousness, including his or her flaws. Joe (the father) is a womanizer; Isabel (the mother) would rather be working than with her family; and calling Kitty (the young woman who shows up at their vacation home) unstable would be an understatement. The second chapter hints at how the novel will end, but it still leaves questions as to HOW it will happen. It is up to the reader to keep an eye out for clues: a pebble with a hole in it, a misplaced antique gun, a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire.
As I read, different scenarios for possible endings came to mind, but of all the endings I envisioned, the actual one was unexpected.
Levy writes in a precise style, almost like a scientist watching the story unfold and reporting on what she sees. However, she also manages to illicit sympathy for her characters, even the ones who don’t seem to deserve it. Their observations clue us in to the people they are watching, but also to their own feelings. Here’s a taste, told from Isabel’s perspective: “Laura and Mitchell thrived on order and structure. Mitchell made five-year plans for their business in Euston, flow charts describing tasks to be done, the logic of decisions, the outcomes desired. She admired their faith in the future: the belief that it delivered outcomes that could be organised to come out in the right shape.”
This is a novel that was hard to put down and that stayed in my thoughts after I had finished it.