Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

30th Oct 2012

When Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies was announced as winner of the Man Booker 2012, it was a victory of one woman writer’s weighty tome over another’s much slighter volumes.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, also shortlisted this year, comes in at 176 pages – a diminutive thing compared to Mantel’s hefty historical novel.

Yet Levy’s little book – while it may not have won – is a potent thing, with a power to unsettle that’s entirely disproportionate to its size.

Originally published by subscription by the small imprint And Other Stories, the new Faber edition contains an explanation of the difficulties Levy and other avant-garde authors have in being published.

Given the less-than-mainstream nature of Swimming Home, that’s perhaps not surprising, for all that it is regrettable.

There’s no denying that this book is a tricky, prickly read. You can set out the scene and it sounds simple enough – over-familiar, even.

Two middle-class English couples on holiday together in a villa in the south of France, one teenage daughter, and plenty of underlying tensions, exacerbated by the arrival of a mysterious stranger… So far, so much typical British novel material.

Levy’s little book – while it may not have won – is a potent thing, with a power to unsettle that’s entirely disproportionate to its size.Yet to explain the characters, their context and the plot in such straightforward terms is to misrepresent the book – for it is the splintered, disjointed, non-linear, uncertain nature of Levy’s storytelling that makes it so powerful.

Joe the poet, married to Isabel the war correspondent; their daughter Nina; their financially troubled friends Mitchell and Laura; their retired English doctor neighbour, Madeleine – all are fascinated yet simultaneously haunted by the appearance of the waif-like, suicidal, unstable wannabe-poet Kitty, who arrives at their villa one day ostensibly by accident, but clearly in pursuit of Joe.

Kitty is paradoxically the novel’s most conflicted but most contented character. Unlike the others, she has no desire to present a smooth outer façade, reconcile her splintered personality or make others feel comfortable in her presence.

Indeed, she is quite happy to force them to face her troubled desires and to unsettle them, something represented by her disarming habit of walking around naked. Given this, it’s no surprise that the series of events set off by her arrival has no satisfying or easily comprehensible resolution.

The first time I read Swimming Home I was disappointed – I found it impenetrable and distancing. The second time I decided to approach it more as a lengthy poem than as a work of prose, and I liked it far better.

This is a book to re-read and puzzle over, though finally it’s still more one to be impressed by than to fall head-over-heels in love with – Swimming Home keeps its secrets close to its chest.


  • I read this book today and I completely agree with you. It is so much more than it seems on the surface. The little repetitions, the subtly changing details, the hints that there is more going on than meets the eye, it’s all very well done. Levy certainly doesn’t spell it out for you, you have to hunt the clues yourself and even then I don’t think you can be certain of anything.