Levy's 2012 novel, Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won broad critical acclaim. Consequently her publishers have rereleased this 1995 work, which is being published for the first time in North America.
The novel opens as a cosmopolitan group of sophisticates gather for the holidays at a château in Normandy. There's a mysterious death of a member of the house party and a French police inspector arrives to get to the bottom of the affair. But this is no conventional murder mystery.
It lends a formal shape to the narrative, but Levy is interested less in plot than in psychology. It's not so much a whodunnit as a whoarethesepeople? As the narrative unfolds, we are taken through the activities and interactions between this diverse group of hedonistic strangers: leisurely feasting, cocktails, party games, ping-pong, musical recitals, country walks. And soon we begin to learn something about these complex, conflicted characters --- and it's not all pretty.
There's a sense of brooding intensity, glimpses of skeletons in closets and a highly charged sexual tension. There's a lot more going on here than a little footsie under the dinner table.
Undertones of violence, rage and suffering infuse all strands of a novel that is ultimately about the loneliness and alienation at the heart of human existence and the damage wrought by the absence of love and the vast chasm between the loved and 'the unloved.'
The unloved watch the loved perform the small rituals of their loving. At night they hear the cries of the loved from their solitary beds. In the morning they watch the loved curiously.
They want rooms far away from their cries. They want to be far away from the loved. It hauls in their lovelessness too close. But they also want to be near the loved. Because the loved are blessed.
They want to be far away from the heat of the night, come together in the daytime for meals and light-hearted conversations because then they are more equal.
Gathered together here in the bourgeois comfort of Normandy are three couples, two single women and two precocious children. Tatiana is the unloved and unlovely daughter of fat wealthy German real-estate tycoon, Wilheim, and Italian Luciana, the ultimate trophy wife. Wilheim's affluence pays to maintain her impossibly perfect beauty and to feed her heroin habit. He dotes on Tatiana, although Luciana is far too self-occupied and narcissistic to show her daughter real affection. Tatiana, who claims to have been a witness to the murder, is also an unnerving observer and mimic of the hedonism, hurt and loneliness which inflicts those around her.
Claudine is the beloved golden child, the daughter of Nancy, whose parents were beatniks in 1950s Tangier, and her French husband, Philippe
She can sip wine all night long without ever getting drunk. She smiles back at her dark Parisian husband of seven years, the father of her daughter. Her clothes are demure, but underneath her beige woollen skirt she wears stockings and black boned corsets that pull in her waist and make her hold her breath. Such a fair woman with such a dark man, and such an enchanted child, Claudine, who laughs deeply from the pit of her small stomach, dancing on her toes. Much-loved Claudine. Her heels never touch the floor.
There's an English couple, Mary and Ben. Mary is the unfortunate victim of the crime. Sullen and blunt, Mary is clearly not a happy woman and she manages to offend most of the other guests. Is she loved? Ben continually professes his love, even if Mary refutes it.
The couple from England collect wood for the fire. Sometimes when they are alone in the damp forest he says to her, 'I love you, Mary,' and she replies, 'No, you don't. You just want something to love.' They throw the logs on to the fire and watch the flames hiss in silence.
Monica is a Polish woman who has abandoned her child in Gdansk and was deeply wounded when Gustave, the love of her life, abandoned her.
Polish Monika, in her early thirties, glances clandestinely at the fifty-five-year-old Yasmina and wonders if she too will grow old alone, self- possessed and deceptively serene. Once the lover of a famous man who had a woman in every port, Monika has grown fat. Every night she sews by the fire, a brooding presence who for now has removed herself from all possible pain.
Nevertheless, Monica endures an excruciating evening when Gustave and his teenaged girlfriend are invited to dinner at the château.Much of Levy's historic narrative concerns the Algerian woman,Yasmina, now a lecturer at a London university.
Yasmina, who keeps the greying curls off her face with two hairslides, is short and chainsmokes hand- rolled tobacco from a canary-yellow leather pouch. She was born in Sétif, Algiers. Clouds of tobacco smoke hide her face, as do the books she always carries with her, holding them close to her shortsighted eyes.
Yasmina bears the scars --- both physical and psychic --- from decades earlier, when Algeria was struggling to gain independence from the French. The sections revisiting that brutal war and exposing Yasmina's shocking story, her horrible suffering and her terrible crimes, are harrowing. Yasmina also has links to the American guest, Nancy, because she encountered her beatnik parents and their friends in the drug-addled ambience of Tangier, where she worked as a hustler and a whore. It was she who first cared for Nancy after her mother committed suicide when she was five."Tell me about my mother," she begs Yasmina. But we learn most of her story from her mother's journal, which the children purloin and secretly read.Then there is the bon vivant policeman, Inspector Blanc, a man who has his own dark secrets: He brutalizes his wife and played a role with the French army during that Algerian unpleasantness. "The application of physical and psychological pain makes people less secretive," says Inspector Blanc, regarding the interrogation techniques he employed. "What are the right words to describe the kind of torture she knows the ex-military man practises on his wife?" muses Luciana, for whom Blanc is developing a consuming obsession.
Inspector Blanc stares hard at the small black pearls, the caviar that circles her milky neck. The exquisite sculpture of her shoulders. The snail of gold hair that has slithered out of her chignon and rests on the slope of her neck . . . he could swear her eyelids are powdered with silver dust. She is a mask, he muses, all artifice --- as if somehow keeping mortality at bay. She is eternity, she is Chanel, she is Dior, she is Guerlain. She is quite simply perfect. A synthetic illusion painted with her own brush. Her narrow silhouette and the nuggets of antique silver on her wrists fascinate and perturb him.
What a crew! Wilheim has the hots for Mary. Philippe fancies Monica and Ben might have impregnated Pinar, the Spanish woman who owns the château.South African born Levy started her career as a playwright and at times the tone of her narration is decidedly theatrical, as characters cook, dine, lounge and confess their secrets in speeches and lines of dramatic dialogue. Yet she seamlessly inserts incidents of near surrealism rife with raw symbolism: the thirteen rotten eggs nobody will remove from the refrigerator; the sudden appearance of a huge rat messily dispatched by Philippe and Ben with empty wine bottles; and there's Luciana, the beautiful junkie, sitting for hours at her computer keyboard, reinventing herself in progressively more bizarre guises of pornographic virtual reality. Levy makes it all work with the supple, absorbing historical narrative and ties it all up in a final scene when Tatiana confronts her mother and underscores the novel's themes: the sadness and perplexity of children, the unsatisfied desires of adults, and, above all, the power and role of love.
'I have been damaged by unlove. It makes me weep at inappropriate moments when I should be dignified. It makes my voice strange and narrows my eyes. My loud laugh has become sly. If I had been loved, I might have had more charm. I might not have been ugly and apologetic. As it is I have only guile . . .'
Tatiana continues to jab her finger at her mother. 'Love is the first and last law. It is the only law worth not breaking. There is nothing else.'--- Warren Sharpe