A Dip at the Shallow End

This is my review of Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.

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.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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