I have been hoist with my own petard. The petard, that is, of long book reading. Suffering in the clutches of two, dare-I-say, overambitious novels (A Suitable Boy and The Pale King, the latter may WELL be abandoned), I decided to take a break and sample this year’s Booker Prize Shortlist. What better short-cut to choosing a novel; surely they are guaranteed to be good? Of course, you’re also narrowing your choices to the selection of one inbred jury, but never mind all that.
To top short-cut with short-cut, I downloaded Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home with a couple of Kindle prods, but only a few pages in noticed my error. 6%. How was I possibly at 6%? Had I possibly gone against all my principles and bought (for the same price) a – gasp – SHORT book? Sadly yes. At 127 pages, the shortest book I’ve read in years, and I found the sprint through the fertile, delicate story somewhat wasteful. Slightly like Mad Men in its narrative style, Levy leaves a lot in the silences in her book, or asks a short sentence to communicate a lot. Accustomed to galloping through novels, Swimming Home required a lighter, more subtly inquisitive read, which I begrudgingly offered it. Meanwhile, I harrumphed of the unexplored facets that we were missing out on by Levy, not the reader, being the galloper. It that my weakness, rather than the novel’s? Undoubtedly.
For in the few pages she offers up, a fair few dimensions are crammed in, with one uniting all of the characters in this gorgeous French Riviera villa – despair. From the spectrum of severe medical depression to economic and marital despair, or the despair of growing up, no character is untouched – and it’s a weighty emotion to deal with in such an apparently light novel. It’s almost not until you run through the character set in your head that you realise this dark thread uniting and dividing them at once. The reviews have focussed on the full-scale depression suffered by protagonist Kitty Finch, but it is in linking this far more developed state with the pained state of the others that Kitty wreaks her damage and the novel finds its greatest effect.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in such a spare novel, the title and a phrase in the prologue (“Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.”) are left to give much of the lesson of the novel as the whole. What is home to each of us, and how do we reach it? Is it physically possibly to reach this safe place without harm? Ultimately, “home” (in its most metaphorical sense) seems to be a place of mental equilibrium different for every person, but fought for, hard won from the hands of life.
All this I can appreciate and gets me thinking, but page-turning as it is, I didn’t love this novel. Levy’s novel smacks of symbolism, as if on the last page she’ll uncover that they aren’t real at all, but only representative of types or situations. And that’s not me. Give me deep, expertly drawn characters interacting any day, not a sparing lightness suggesting a world of symbolic pain.
Hell, I really am going to have to finish A Suitable Boy after all.