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Swimming Home
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103 of 116 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 October 2012
I know that I am swimming against the tide here but reviews are personal - and personally, I didn't like this book (actually, more of a novella) one bit.

The writing is pretentious, riddled with symbolism, and the characters are impossible to warm to. Fortunately, the reader doesn't have to spend too much time in their company. I disagree with other reviewers about the book being light on plot. If anything, I found it plot-heavy for the ephemeral style of writing. But I do agree with J. M. Gardner who found echoes of Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow. If you like middle-aged, middle-class people sitting round a swimming pool discussing - or actually, not discussing but thinking about their varying degrees of angst, then maybe this is a book that will appeal to you. And talking of swimming pools, here was a point about the book that jarred for me from the outset. The pool at the South of France villa where two couples and the teenage daughter of one of the couples is spending the summer is green. It is described on page 5 as being "more like a pond". For me, this was a complete deal-breaker in terms of credibility right there. There is NO WAY anybody is going to put up with a dirty pool on a long-term summer holiday villa let. It may sound a trivial point but I just knew from that point that I was never going to believe in these people. Here is the cast list:

Joe, devoted father of the teenager, famous poet, serial philanderer and guilty Holocaust survivor.
Wife, Isabel, successful war correspondent who has put her career before her daughter.
Mitchell, unsuccessful seller of bric-a-brac, foodie and gun-collector.
His wife, Laura, a giant of a woman and potentially the most interesting character of the lot, but woefully underwritten.
Nina, the beautiful teenage daughter, who may be in love with her daddy but gets a crush on the interloper.
Kitty Finch, the inevitable interloper who is going to change everything. She is irritating in the extreme and, frankly, nuts.
Supporting cast:
Madeleine Sheridan, observant old next-door neighbour, ex-pat and shrink (incredibly convenient).
Jurgen, utterly unbelievable caretaker (see swimming pool).
Claude, Mick Jagger look-alike who owns the local café and fancies Nina.

Essentially, this is a book about two dislikeable people each of them with a damaged psyche and a death-wish. How it got onto the Booker list, I will never know. Oh, wait a minute, I do. It's just the sort of thing the Booker panel always seems to go for.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 11 November 2012
who found it impossible to see why this novel was short-listed for the Booker. Poorly written, unconvincing and pretentious ...the book reads like a preliminary sketch for a novel with characters barely realized, half-created to illustrate some historical or psychological point - the worst of these being the 'poet' Jozef Jacobs as a child abandoned by his parents in Poland during the war (embarrassing in comparison with, for example Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces) - and the supposedly beautiful and enigmatic Kitty Finch who succeeds only in being profoundly irritating. Tom McCarthy praises Deborah Levy in part because she knows her Lacan, Barthes, Deleuze etc etc - all I can say is that they have done her no service whatsoever. I have never written an Amazon review before but this book, and the way it has been hyped, made me so angry that I went straight online to do so ... and OK, I may be a pedantic teacher of English, but the use of 'like' in place of 'as if' is unforgivable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 December 2012
Swimming Home is Deborah Levy's latest contemporary novel using European Modernism, alongside British Realism to develop the dark storyline behind Kitty Finch's poem which is also the title of the book. Levy is well known for her plays and poetry whilst also having written novels such as Beautiful Mutants and Billy Girl, which were great successes.

It is set in the French Riviera following the lives of five tourists who rent a villa for a week, in the summer of July 1994. From the opening sentence, "When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loves him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation." We are thrown into the mysterious, erratic actions of Kitty Finch, the central protagonist. She arrives unannounced, pretending she got the dates when she was supposed to stay wrong. However she is actually besotted by Joe Jacobs and is determined for him to read her poem. He is a famous poet who is often unfaithful to his wife, Isabel Jacobs, a war reporter. Nina, their teenage daughter, has learned not to care about her mother's lack of presence. We see her develop from a child into a young woman throughout the week, developing both physically and mentally. She understands the hidden meaning behind Kitty's poem, something the adults fail to do.

Mitchell and his wife Laura have become bankrupt and struggle to accept the failure of their business. Madeline Sheridan is a woman living next door to the villa, who left her husband and medical career behind in England to move to France. Unfortunatly early on in her stay she found an unstable Kitty wandering Nice, naked and alone and felt obliged to take action, something Kitty resents her for and now tries to make her life a misery. Despite Madeline's attempts to warn the couples of Kitty's danger they refuse to listen to her and unexpected tragedy strikes at the end of this compelling book.

I found this book intriguing and original and felt it was like nothing I had read before. At times I found the book was strange and made me feel uneasy but once completing the book I wanted to read more due to the clever way Levy managed to dig beneath the characters representation to the outer world and see their inner thoughts. It showed the misery and depression that they tried to conceal and keep hidden. I found the description into Kitty's character successful and felt she brought something unique to the book that was beautiful and disturbing. I found the writing technique added to my experience of reading it as the chapters were set in a clear and obvious order which helped to understand the narrative. It is a short novel yet still remains highly poignant. My only negative comment would be about Mitchell and Laura as they were forgotten and they became dissolved and unmemorable.

This is one of the best written, unusual modern novels I have read and I feel it deserves recognition and credibility for the thought provoking language used. Kitty Finch's character is described as more of an art form bringing lust and misery to the book, whilst the description of the French Riviera brings beauty and warmth to this cold and chilling novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 November 2012
It seems unusual for an author to provide helpful notes to her latest novel but in a recent "Guardian" Deborah Levy writes of some key influences on her book. These include Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Scott Fitzgerald, European modernism, British realism, and the film version of John Cheever's The Swimmer. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Le Mépris are other movies mentioned. In a later essay she states her admiration for Lee Miller. Of course not all of the above will appeal but it is clear that Ms Levy and this reader at least have some common ground!
Having set the bar so high it is fair to ask if the novel comes up to expectations. The writing, setting, pacing, and plotting are impeccable. The characters depicted are rather uncomfortable and some are downright disagreeable. The heroine, Kitty Finch, is pretty dodgy and the poet Joe, who she apparently admires, is almost as unsavoury as the other guests in the villa are. Deliberately the author creates a constant atmosphere of discord and unease. Mental instability is just about held in check. The total superficial façade is underpinned by Sartre's 'bad faith'.
The novel is short and intense, of high quality, and packs a great deal into its small space. But the redeeming vices and human failings of the characters seem lacking in any charm; while for me the heroine offered more of a threat than a promise. Warmth, I suspect, was not what its author intended and here her eye for humanity seems to be a cold one.
That said I recognise that this is a novel that holds up a mirror to the self, and that any distortion of vision may come from within. This is a very perceptive work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2012, this is an unusually haunting book, beautifully written, but with distinct echoes of another book, The Accidental, by Ali Smith. The only thing that is the same is the plot, and though it isn't a straight copy, it has many of the same features. A family comes to their holiday villa to find that a young woman, Kitty, has also arrived, expecting to stay. Granted that she hasn't booked, but she has stayed in the past, and Isobel reluctantly agrees that she can have the spare room. Isobel and her husband Joe have arrived with their daughter Nina, aged 14, and guests Mitchell and Laura. Joe is a famous poet, but it's some time before Kitty can get up the courage to approach Joe and ask him to read a poem she has written. There are one or two disquieting incidents, one connected to a neighbour, Madeline Sheridan a retired psychiatrist.

Is Kitty ill in some way - she barely eats a thing, and there are moments when she actually seems deranged. Why is Kitty collecting stones? Why won't Joe read her poem? But the shock, when it comes at the end of the novel, does not directly involve her and it is someone else who suffers. The writing is cool and specific, fresh and acerbic and there are hints of a schematic subtext through everything connected with the enigmatic Kitty. Joe loves his wife, but sometimes love is not enough.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 5 December 2012
Like other reviewers, I wanted to like this book. It's short, clearly and in places elegantly written. I've no particular objection to stories about middle-class intellectuals in the south of France: I'd like to be one myself! But the further I got, the more I had the strange sensation that although I could understand what what was going on, I had no idea of the significance of any of the events, and therefore no involvement with the characters or, really, any understanding of the novel at all. The fact that the writing had a kind of pellucid clarity made this all the more frustrating. And, yes, I do understand that it draws on Freud, Lacan, Derrida, et al, and I've no objection to that either. But knowing the theories shouldn't be a prerequisite of understanding the novel. You don't need to know about existentialism to grasp and enjoy 'L'Etranger'. I think the writer is aiming for a sort of Muriel Spark effect: an air of vague but powerful threat--but she lacks her narrative gift.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 19 October 2012
A beautiful, mentally sick young woman is caught swimming naked in the pool of a French villa rented by a famous poet, his dysfunctional little family, his wife's old school friend and her unappealing husband. Why is the young woman invited to stay when this is so clearly unwise? Just what form will the inevitable resultant tragedy take? Or will it simply prove to be a lightweight farce?

Although this may not be an entirely original scenario, there is plenty of scope for a compelling drama for which the author creates a cast of potentially interesting characters. The plot is revealed obliquely, in short chapters with continually changing viewpoints, disjointed scenes like fragments of glass which are often quite surreal. This approach may be what led to the Man Booker shortlisting, but combined with a style that flits in a sometimes jarring fashion between parody and caricature, psychological drama and even a touch of magic realism, the result left me feeling unengaged with and unmoved by the main characters, although I thought the adolescent Nina and the lonely old doctor observing them all from her balcony were well drawn.

At first, I was annoyed by the author's habit of telling the reader too soon and too baldly what is going to happen. I later realised that she is often setting red herrings in our path, which could be quite clever, except that the climax proves too abrupt and inadequately foreshadowed and explained. Then the final chapter seems too much of a sentimental footnote.

I think the book may improve on a second reading, but it was seriously marred for me by a lack of subtlety in the development and some surprisingly gauche prose, which read as if the author wrote what first came into her head without any reflection and redrafting. These factors would have caused me to give up midway if the novel had not been so short and Booker-listed. I believe that Deborah Levy has achieved success as a playwright and perhaps this story would work well on the stage, although it would be hard to create the sets for some of the locations which add flavour to the story.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 November 2012
Avoid the preface at all costs until you read the novel first. It would fill Psued's Corner for a year (a girl is 'dolphining about' sitting beside a pool. I suspect this poisoned my mind (and others?) against the book from the outset.

At first I felt like chucking this 'literary' novel in the nearest Oxfam, but about page 80 the story actually seems to come alive. The structure of alternate voices for each chapter is seamless and although the ending is clearly signposted, I did find it engaging. In fact it is quite a page turner despite the sometimes overwritten prose. However the subject matter of adultery amongst smug middle class types on holiday is yawn inducing. A more original story would have been better served by her skills.
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31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 14 October 2012
Unfortunately the characters within this novella suffer underwriting for the benefit of style and self-conscious minimalism. Critics have praised it for the 'power of what is unsaid', but I think this may be generous collaboration on the part of some readers, as only wafer thin outlines of characters are established. The main character, Kitty, who is supposed to amuse/bemuse/enchant/disgust is painfully idiosyncratic, a crude charicature of manic depression- leaving one to wonder how anyone could be obsessed with, rather than just plain annoyed, by her.

The atmosphere is tense but a tableau, as we are constantly reminded that we are reading a work of extended prose- none of the characters are fleshed out enough for us to really care who is to be the casualty of the impending tragedy/crisis that the consecutive awkward scenarios are obviously building up to.

This would have worked well as a short story, but doesn't have the meat for a satisfying longer read. The last chapter feels like a 'cop-out' that is not only tonally out of place, but discredits the author as having missed a trick by not having as Epitaph what we all wanted to eventually read: *that* poem. I'm sure Philosophy fans will insist that this is the beauty of it: does it matter what the poem was? Is it not just symbolic? Etc etc . Maybe in a short story, fair enough, but not in a novel/la. It was a final chance to show depth to the characters, and even, if necessary, assert a statement about loss, longing, passion and death that the book seems desperate to do but never commits to.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 21 November 2012
A short novel, short-listed for the Man Booker prize, but I am afraid I was disappointed. It is a tale of a disturbed set of people who find themselves together in the South of France. None of the adults are engaging - the most attractive character is a 14-year-old girl. There is lots of overdone symbolism. The best thing about the book was the main opening scene where people come across a naked body in the swimming pool of their rented villa - and the body turns out to be alive. There is a sprinkling of superbly-worded sentences. Some readers praise the book highly. I found it hard to retain my interest.
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