(Bloomsbury)Kitty Finch is a botanist who is in love with Joe Jacobs, a poet. Joe is married to Isabel who knows the whole story, but she invites Kitty to stay with them in their vacation home near Nice.
Their daughter Nina is in love with Jurgen the grounds keeper who is a hippy. Mitchell and Laura are friends of Joe and Isabel and stay at their vacation place, too. Laura is a war correspondent, and she's 6' 3" and you might be saying (as I am saying) that there are just too damn many characters who turn up right at the beginning of Swimming Home and how are we to keep them apart because they are tripping all over each other in their eagerness to get in at the beginning of this novel?
But Ms. Levy is an experienced novelist (this is #7) so I'll tell you that all these people jumbled together at the get-go makes no difference because sooner or later they will be sorted out, for these characteers are like pick-up-sticks: soon they and their eccentric selves will reveal themselves for their drama-of-the-week here in the Antibes.
It's all laid out carefully day by day: Kitty Finch takes off her clothes too much too often in front of everyone, Joe tries to avoid reading the poem she has written specifically for him, (named, concidentally, "Swimming Home"), Nina gets her first period (she's just turned fourteen) and sneaks in to read the poem, and Laura tries to tell Isabel to get away from her philandering husband forever. Finally she does, but not like she or Laura envisions it.
It's a jumble but it makes no difference, because each of these characters is so sharply and nicely done that we get stuck in their world --- and their often mad dialogue ---and don't want it to end: we don't want them to Swim Home, either, at least not yet, not until we've gotten our fill of them and their philandering, crazy ways.
For instance, before Kitty Finch and Joe have their tryst in the Hotel Negresco in Nice (to which she wore a cape made of swan feathers), he orders two cocktails of the month --- champagne with Crème de Fraise des Bois --- and they fall in bed before she can tell him of her recurring nightmare where a young black boy with two fresh hen eggs in his pocket pops out of the wall to stand next to her bed and wave as if he had something very important to tell her. It's that kind of book, where everyone's adventures --- so separate and alone --- overwhelm whatever plot we may be ambling through, and some passages are so rich (just a few words, little explanation, so surreal) that we go from aperçu to aperçu, thinking to hell with the story, it's all so involving we just don't want Levy to stop spinning her web.
At first Kitty didn't know what she meant [about her period]. And then she grabbed Nina's hand and they ran into the garden. Nina sould see her own shadow in the pool and in the sky at the same time. She was tall and long, there was no end to her and no beginning, her body stretched out and vast. She wanted to swim and when Kitty insisted it didn't matter about the bood, she dared herself to take off her bikini and be naked, watching her twin shadow untie the straps more bravely than the real-sized Nina actually felt. She finally jumped into the pool and hid herself in the blanket of leaves that floated in the water, not sure what to do with her new body because it was morphing into something alien and perplexing to her.
The dialogue is in fine counterpoint to the mere description, for this author has written nine plays and it shows. This is Kitty and Joe in their penultimate back-and-forth as she driving him back to the villa from the Hotel Negresco. Joe: "It would be better for Isabel if she does not know what happened tonight."
Kitty laughs and the blue mouse [candy] bounced on her lap.
"Isabel already knows."
"Knows what?" He told her he was feeling dizzy. Would she slow down?
"That's why she invited me to stay. She wants to leave you..."
A few moments later, they are talking about the poem she wrote for him, that she has been trying to get him to read the last five days.
Joe says, "It's dishonest to give me a poem and pretend to want my opinion when what you really want are reasons to live. Or reasons not to die."
"You want reasons to live too."
He leaned towards her and kissed her eyes. First the left and then the right, as if she was already a corpse.
"I'm not the right reader for your poem. You know that."
She thought about this while she sucked on her blue mouse.
"The important thing is not the dying. It's making the decision to die that matters."
§ § §
Death, dying, suicide. These themes pop up at the throughout Swimming Home no matter how merry the reading. They're a regular drumbeat in the background throughout the novel, and thus drift in so naturally at the very conclusion. Someone is going to die, violently, by their own hand, we just don't know which one of them it will be. One of the six characters is going to commit the ultimate act of violence --- what Camus called the only real choice we have in all of our lives --- and one of the other characters is going to push them to do it.
That's the wonder of Swimming Home. We know someone is going to do themselves in, by knife, gun, or drowning: the author lets us know early on that this is going to be the penultimate act in this particular play. In that way, it's not unlike an Agatha Christie or Josephine Tey mystery. We don't know --- we don't want to know, until the very end --- who the killer is going to be. At the same time, we can't wait to find out, as we are wishing very much not to find out.--- H.C. Chambless