Two couples are holidaying in a cottage near Niece on the French Riveria one summer in 1994. They’re somewhat surprised to find a naked young woman floating in their pool one day. There’s been a mix-up with the dates, she says. Isabel, a war correspondent, invites the girl, Kitty Finch, to stay. But why? Her poet husband Joseph is a renowned philanderer, and their teenage daughter Nina is young and impressionable.
Naturally, all is not as it seems in this apparently idyllic setting. Relationships break down and madnesses are revealed, in this beautifully crafted novella by British writer Debroah Levy, Swimming Home.
The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year, and I caught up with Deborah at the Sydney Writers Festival to talk about how we try to make our way home.
You’d described somewhere your feeling of the pool as a stage or a theatre, which I found a really interesting way of looking at it.
DEBORAH LEVY: Yeah, because Swimming Home is set around the swimming pool. It takes place in the south of France. It’s 1994. And when I was thinking about setting it around the swimming pool, there were two things that came to mind: I looked up what a swimming pool physically, architecturally is, and it’s a hole in the ground.
So I began to think about that: If it was a hole in the ground it was also a bit like a grave, and that was going to play a part in my sunny holiday story that goes a bit wrong.
But in a more upbeat way, a swimming pool is like a theatre because it has exits and entrances, and people wear costumes, albeit very scanty ones! People could literally enter it and exit it, so that’s it’s relationship to a theatre in my book.
You said you’ve been ispired by the story of Hansel and Gretel, and you do feel it in the book, because all the characters seem to be floundering around in some way trying to find their way back to wherever it is where they want to go, and none of them are quite sure what they’re doing.
The theme of home is very potent in Swimming Home. The leading male character Joe Jacobs slides precariously between two names – he’s also Josef Novogrodski. He was born in Poland and he’s Jewish. When he’s five years old his parents walk him into a forest in Poland and tell him “you can never come home. It’s not safe to come home”. And he is smuggled through the forest and winds up – as many children of that generation were – he winds up in East London at Whitechapel, and he never sees his parents again.
So he has to live with that refrain in his mind – “you can never come home”. He has to live with something that’s very hard to bear.
One of the questions of the novel is: how do we live with knowledge we can’t endure? So Hansel and Gretel come into it – you asked me this earlier – and I often read fairytales because there’s so much in them. They walk into a forest and in the original, they have a wicked stepmother, of course, and there’s a famie in the land and there’s not much food, and they abandon the children. And the children nevertheless make a trail of bread in the forest to get home. And I was so touched by that because home wasn’t a good place for Hansel and Gretel, and they still made that trail.
And the trail they made is so easily destroyed, there’s nothing permanent about it.
Well, exactly. What are all our trails and traces but home? For Hansel and Gretel, the birds come and eat the bread up and they have to find another way back.
And we call them fairytales but really they’re nightmares – they’re these cautionary tales for how not to live your life, and the horrible things that will befall you if you do the wrong thing.
Perhaps – and also how to live your life. Home in Swimming Home is an impossibility. Joe doesn’t know how to get home, but he wants to. But what is home?
An inspiration for Swimming Home was the John Cheever short story called The Swimmer, and there’s a scene in that amazing short story – and I recommend it to everyone, to readers and writers and especially writers who are just starting out, because everything you need to find out about how to construct a story and move a character through it is in Cheever’s story.
But anyway, the story is set in suburban Connecticut in America in the 1950s and there’s lot of swimming pools in this rich suburb. The leading character looks out at all the pools and he thinks of them as a river, and he names the river after his wife. He calls all these pools that are making a river in his mind’s eye the river Lucinda, and he reckins he’s going to swim home through the river. And we just know as the reader that home isn’t going to be a great place. It’s a tremendous effort for him to get back through those pools and he arrives home to find his house locked up, and we know his wife has left him and taken the children and all the rest of it. So that was the real inspiration for Swimming Home.
You’ve got Joe trying to find his way home, wherever home might be, and then you have his wife Islabel the TV war correspondent, who’s been fleeing home for how many years to these war-torn places where people are completely adrift, instead of staying home.
Yeah. Joe is a hopeless husband and a very good father. [Laughs] I wanted to make him as complicated as possible. Sometimes you hate him, sometimes you warm to him, he’s a great dad–
I pitied him, a lot of the time.
Oh right! Well that’s the job done then, isn’t it. He’s a great dad to his 14-year-old daughter Nina, and I’ve reversed the usual stereotype of the mum at home. So it’s Joe, Nina’s dad, who’s washing her tights and sewing buttons onto her cardigan and getting her to school and making her lunchbox.
But also introducing her to his lovers.
He’s a philanderer and he cheats on his wife, and Nina has to live with a father who’s constantly cheating on her absent mother. Isabel is a war correspondent and her work takes her to all kinds of conflicts. She’s pressed up quite closely to the suffering world. When she comes home she feels she has a transient place in the family. To do the things she’s chosen to do in the world, she’s kind of given up her place in the family, and I give that an airing. What does it mean to be a mother, what does it mean to be a father in the twenty-first century?
What does it mean to be pushed out of your own home by your own hand?
Exactly. And there’s a part of her that would rather be shot at in war zones than live with her cheating husband who betrays her all the time. So I’ve made things very complicated there. And of course Nina really resents her mum. She thinks her mum is more interested in the suffering world than in her suffering daughter. So mothers and daughters in Swimming Home get an airing, too.
And that brings us up to the starting point of the story, when it’s Isabel who invites the naked girl in the pool to stay for the summer.
She does, and no one can fathom why, not even herself, really. Kitty Finch arrives, they see her in the pool, swimming naked. The family are there with two friends, Mitchell and Laura, and the male characters in the novel – Joe and Mitchell – when they see this naked woman in the pool, there’s some sexual excitement, and they say “is it a bear?” and Mitchell, who collects vintage guns, says “well, if it’s a bear, I’m going to have to shoot it”. But the women know it’s a naked young woman in the pool. It’s obvious to Nina that that’s what it is. So Isabel invites her to stay in the spare room, but most of the characters try to unfold why she’s done this, inviting this pretty young thing–
Who’s obviously caught her husband’s eye.
Yes, obsessed with her husband.
Flattering him, following him; stalking, I guess you would call that.
Yep, she’s written a poem called Swimming Home; the novel takes its title from the poem. And she asks him to read it, and we discover at the end of the novel why Isabel asks Kitty to stay.
Kitty is– I don’t know if I want to call her mad, I don’t think it’s as black and white as that, but Kitty is certainly haunted by her own demons, and she has her own way of looking at the world, and she seems to see in Josef a kindred spirtit.
She certainly does. She’s a fragile young woman, and she’s fiercely clever.
And I have her naked throught the book partly because I wanted to explore the ways in which men scrutinise women and women scrutinise women. Everyone projects everything, their own demons, onto Kitty Finch, who has plenty of her own.
But she seems to revel in that role of being their blank canvas, as well.
She loves the attention, but I did want there to be some doubt about how mad she is, or she isn’t. So one of the themes of the book is: what is madness? How do we live with it? Our own and other people’s? Who’s to say; who’s pointing the finger here? What does it mean to be mad, and what is normal? So Kitty Finch serves that purpose, really, for everyone. We could say she’s a bit noisily mad, and it’s the quiet ones we watch.
This interview was first broadcast by 2SER 107.3’s weekly book program, Final Draft.