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.
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.
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.
on 3 December 2012
Deborah Levy's portrayal of depression is a poignant reminder of how even the fortunate suffer from this mental illness. Levy emphasizes how people suffering from such an illness attempt to hide their secret from themselves and their partner. Levy uses suspense to engage the reader to a shocking finale.
Set in the South-East of France, poet Joseph Jacobs and his family arrive at their villa in Nice to stay with their friends, Mitchell and Laura, during the summer of 1994. In their pool is a floating body, which Joe immediately interprets as a bear. It is in fact Kitty Finch, the catalyst for this book, a botanist who is obsessed with Joe Jacob's poetry. Kitty slithers out of the pool naked in front of everyone and appears to be anorexic. Levy emphasizes Kitty's stunning features by referring her to a doll `her long thighs were joined to the jutting hinges of her hips like the legs of dolls'. The fact that she is physically fragile also reflects her state of mind; Kitty Finch has finished taking anti-depressants. As a consequence, she is mentally fragile too. Her presence disturbs the Jacob's family and their guests.
Despite the novel being penned in a romantic setting, it is far from the usual passionate holiday anecdote. Levy intertwines the issue of a broken marriage into the plot through Joe's mysterious wife Isabel, which may seem a prevalent theme, except Levy's outlook is quite disturbing. She skips between the perspectives of Joe and Isabel to show their views on their broken marriage. Isabel, who has been cuckolded by her husband, abandons her family to become a war correspondent. Their teenage daughter Nina, the novel's protagonist, recalls her experience of growing up in London as lonely. The idea swirls that Nina was a neglected child without her parents there as role models. She is reminded of their house constantly smelling of her father's `special' status and his girlfriends shampoo during the time her mother was away serving in the Rwandan war.
The sexual tension between Joe and Kitty is apparent from the first chapter. Joe Jacobs's not only shares his love of poetry with Kitty, they also have a past linked to depression. His most famous poem is about his own treatment for depression. He explains how his teenage years had been `tranquillised into a one-season pharmaceutical mist' after a teenage experiment with a razor blade which doctors viewed as an outlandish action. Kitty believes Joe's poetry is a conversation with her, "Joe's poetry is more like a conversation with me than anything else... we are in nerve-contact". This highlights the fact that she is an idiosyncratic character, clearly desperate for Joe's attention, which is made clear when it is stated " At last. At last he was talking to her".
Levy attaches the metaphor of a bear to Joe Jacobs to elucidate his desperation to try and reconnect with his family and most importantly, his wife. Levy describes how `he would poke his paw inside every hollow of every tree to scoop up the honeycomb and lay it at her feet if he thought she might stay a little longer with him and their cub'. This shows his struggle to cope when his wife left him and his daughter to become a war correspondent.
It appears Isabel plans to use Kitty as device to seduce her husband so that she can jilt him. Or, perhaps she is using Kitty as an excuse to blame for their broken marriage?
Harriet King, seminar group C
on 8 July 2014
The Jacobs family arrive at their holiday villa in the south of France. Joe, the poet, Isabel the war correspondent, their 14 year old daughter, and their two friends, Laura and Mitchell. They find a naked woman floating in their swimming pool - a red haired beauty, very much alive - called Kitty Finch. She is mysterious, apparently homeless, and Isabel allows her to stay on in the villa’s spare bedroom. None of their lives are ever going to be the same again.
We see Kitty and the group of friends from several different angles - the creepy caretaker Jurgen who lusts after Kitty, the elderly doctor Madeleine Sheridan who warns them against her destructive personality. But Kitty is allowed to stay.
The daughter, Nina, is the innocent observer as layer after layer of respectability and identity are peeled back - no-one is who they first appeared to be. The ending is inevitable. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely,’ says Kitty Finch. One character loses hope - it kept me guessing until the very last page.
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.
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.
on 25 March 2014
Very visual, very poetic. Fairly slight but none the worse for it. The images resonate for long after you've finished.
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.
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.
on 29 October 2012
Although the novel is in some ways reminiscent of French Nouvelle vague, building up characters and tension through a mosaic of images and interactions, I did not find allusions to the range of modern authors, artists and philosophers in Tom McArthy's afterword particularly illuminating.
For me the novel works at a more visceral and instinctive level, closer to the worlds of Bunuel and Dali. Individuals oscillate between domineering and frail (Isabel), empowered and powerless (Joe), violent and submissive (Mitchell), resistant and passively accepting (Laura), as they fall under Kitty's spell. In her presence, walls become porous, individuals hold unspoken conversations, move from Mediterranean sunshine into dream tormented sleep, as from life to death and back.
In the opening scene Kitty Finch emerges from the murky pool that resembles the group's collective subconscious. She is at once gauchely innocent and sexually threatening, her insouciance giving her ultimate control over more conditioned, socialised beings, even though each strives to hold onto their protective adult shell. With her green nails and penchant for green silk, Kitty is the atavistic, sexually charged, green woman of medieval folklore; she is also the childlike comforter of the child (Nina), the knowing disarmer of fools (Mitchell) and callous medics (Madelene) and the besotted soul-daughter of a depressive poet. Finally, wearing her shawl of white feathers she becomes the bewitching angel of death, bringing Joe Home from his unendurable dark imaginings. Even here there is a deadly ambiguity as Nina mistakes the body in the pool for the one she saw in the opening scene. Through the seven-day arc of the tragedy, Nina herself is drawn into a womanhood that will continue the conversation.
Images resonate at different levels: bees are the warm sound of soporific summer, of frail life perishing in the pool, of honey-producers (honey is a two-faced seduction of nectar and bee-spit) of unexpected painful stings, and so on. After two readings, questions and nuances still keep surfacing. I found the book intriguing, haunting, and profound.