The Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home begins with the sight of a naked young female swimmer who inveigles her way into the lives of a group of holiday guests at a French villa. Quirky, off-beat, but credible and serious too, the 157-page yarn is strangely compulsive.
The swimmer is spotted floating in the swimming pool by the incredulous guests who are spending three weeks at a rented holiday villa in the hills above Nice. The year is 1994, and the guests are Joe Jacob, whose most famous poem has been translated into 25 languages; his wife Isabel, an intrepid war correspondent; their 14-year old daughter Nina, and their friends, Mitchell and Laura.
After she introduces herself, the swimmer, Kitty Finch is charitably handed her dress, which had been lying by the pool. However, she spends much of the rest of the novel walking around naked anyway. The young woman believes that there has been a misunderstanding with the booking arrangements, and tells the villa guests that she will lose her deposit and will have to book a hotel.
Without any consultation with the other guests, the purposeful Isabel invites Kitty to stay in the spare room. That in itself is interesting, as Isabel has endured various infidelitites from her husband. In the unconventional Jacobs' marriage, Isabel has spent much time abroad, in Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and other war-torn places.
These troubled bolt-holes, it seems, are a kind of refuge from the intensity of initimate life with her spouse. Because of her frequent absences, she has neglected her relationship with her daughter, yet another strain in a novel of strained relationships.
Kitty, as we subsequently learn, has been taking the tranquiliser Seroxat for years. Her presence draws all manner of tension to the surface, and 'surface' is apposite, as the swimming pool in question is the vortex around which everything seems to hover. Like a malevolent sprite, she will unsettle everyone willing to be unsettled. In fact, no one is perfect in this uncomfortable tale.
Joe is her real obession, it turns out. Kitty has a poem called Swimming Home that she wants him to read. Joe was sent to England by his Polish parents in 1937, the year he was born. He tried to slit his wrist as an adolescent and his teenage years " had been tranquilised into a one-season pharmaceutical mist.”
Claude, meanwhile, is the predatory, insolent young bar owner who looks like Mick Jagger. Jurgen, a German, is the cooky, dread-locked villa caretaker. The elderly, retired doctor Madeleine Sheridan lives in the adjoining villa - she is suspicious of her neighbours’ hospitality. Madeleine is invited in for roast beef by Mitchell, which prompts one of the narrative's many acerbic observations:
“She (Madeleine) wondered whether she had it in herself to decline Mitchell's invitation. She thought she did. When couples offer shelter or a meal to strays and loners, they do not really take them in. They play with them. Perform for them. And when they are done they tell their stranded guests in in all sorts of sly ways she is now required to leave. Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interest at heart. A single guest was a mere distraction from this task.”
The wit with Deborah Levy executes her impish, surreal sketches and brief set pieces throughout is impressive. Chapter headings follow eight days of the action, Saturday to Saturday. By the end of the week, things have worked inevitably towards the fearful climax.