Swim­ming Home: A Novel

Deb­o­rah Levy
  • Review
By – June 7, 2013

Short­list­ed for the 2012 Book­er Prize, Swim­ming Home cap­tures the milieu of the French Riv­iera and — as Tom McCarthy points out in his intro­duc­tion — turns the con­ven­tions of the bour­geois hol­i­day nov­el com­plete­ly on their head. Levy, a skilled prose styl­ist and play­wright, shows her drama­tist stripe with the tight­ly focused and engag­ing plot. Told with expert exe­cu­tion, the sto­ry con­cerns a Jew­ish poet, Joe Jacobs, born Jozef Nowogrodz­ki, who is on vaca­tion with his war cor­re­spon­dent wife and teenage daugh­ter. When they arrive at the vil­la, they find the body of a mys­te­ri­ous young woman, Kit­ty Finch, float­ing motion­less in the swim­ming pool; yet, she is alive. The Jacobs allow Kit­ty to stay with them, and we fol­low many of the vaca­tion­ers for one week via a rotat­ing nar­ra­tion. Life in the vil­la grows more com­pli­cat­ed with threats of infi­deli­ty, dis­cus­sions of writ­ing and the writ­ing life, and the over­pow­er­ing weight of per­son­al his­to­ry that threat­ens many of the char­ac­ters’ chances at hap­pi­ness. Through­out, Levy main­tains a haunt­ing, myth­ic tone — a tone com­pound­ed by the sub­ter­ranean his­to­ries of char­ac­ters that slow­ly and deli­cious­ly emerge.

The pas­sages that con­cern Joe’s pro­fes­sion — read­ing, writ­ing, and liv­ing poet­i­cal­ly — all come through art­ful­ly, as a result of Levy’s deft char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and scene set­ting. But Kit­ty is the real hook here: her anx­i­eties and eccen­tric­i­ties are enchant­i­ng and her amor­phous, shape-shift­ing qual­i­ties are con­sis­tent­ly drawn in this ele­gant and evoca­tive nov­el. The com­par­isons the book has received to Woolf’s Mrs. Dal­loway are with mer­it. There is so much pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism and sign play going on that most read­ers will delight in pay­ing close atten­tion from first sen­tence to the last.

Phil Sandick is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. He has taught cours­es in lit­er­a­ture, com­po­si­tion, and cre­ative writ­ing since 2006. Phil is cur­rent­ly study­ing rhetoric and com­po­si­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill.

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