Joe, Isabel, and their daughter Nina aren't exactly a happy family, but they're pretending well enough. Joe is a world-famous poet, Isabel is a highly-respected journalist, and young Nina is caught somewhere between her parents' competing personalities. The family is on a much-needed vacation in Nice doing their best to relax - at least until Kitty Finch shows up. Kitty is wild and unpredictable, and she completely takes the family off guard with her fragile appearance and bizarre behavior.
It soon comes to light that Kitty's "accidental" encounter with the family was indeed calculated. She confronts Joe as an aspiring poet and fan of his work in the hopes that he will read her poetry. But Kitty's poetry turns out to be rather sinister as the themes imply certain death - but is it Kitty's Finch's own death that is suggested, or someone else's?
Swimming Home is a very compact little book. At just over 100 pages, Deborah Levy explores a number of different themes - violence, old age, infidelity, mental illness, and social hierarchies to name a few - but the book felt unfinished and the ideas incomplete. Perhaps if the novel were a little longer Levy could have further developed and polished the characters, but the book ends just as you're beginning to settle into the characters and understand their motivations. That being said, the prose has consistent moments of poignancy and dark humor. Levy is especially successful at conveying Joe's humorous disconnect as a father and the struggle to relate to his fans. When young Nina starts her period for the first time, Joe shakes his daughter's hand and proclaims, "Congratulations. Your mother told me you've started your period at last...um...have you got everything you need...you know, for a girl who has just started?" And later, Joe muses over his "depressed" fan base, declaring:
I can't stand the DEPRESSED. It's like a job, it's the only thing they work hard at. Oh good my depression is very well today. Oh good today I have another mysterious symptom and I will have another one tomorrow. The DEPRESSED are full of hate and bile and when they are not having panic attacks they are writing poems. (p. 65)Sorry, Joe, but depressed folks love poetry, and ironically, Joe is one of the unhappiest characters in the book.
Kitty's mysterious and seemingly unstable nature is also intriguing, but she could be so much more dynamic, as could Nina's coming-of-age story. Kitty is a disturbing force of nature to this family, but her presence in the text is too weak for my liking. Ultimately, Swimming Home has the potential to be a very compelling thriller with extremely delicate sub-themes, but unfortunately, this novella falls short (pun intended!).
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 8/24/12