For reasons mysterious to me I often think of books as drinks. Donal Ryan’s latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, is a single malt whiskey, short and potent, infused with a warmth I felt in my body. John Banville’s The Sea is a green smoothie, a book where every sentence is undeniably good but the pages are hard to get through.
I read both of these novels in recent weeks. Ryan’s novel was deeply emotive and easy to read – the stories of three men, threaded together by a shared humanity. The Sea, by contrast, did not go down easily, despite Banville’s breathtakingly beautiful sentences. “The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
The Sea is a meditative novel about grief, narrated by an ageing art historian. Moving between past and present, it has a rolling quality, the prose ebbing and swelling with emotion.
Reading The Sea, I was at times as frustrated as a child forced to eat her spinach. Other times – increasingly, the more I read – it was like this novel was actively nourishing me. How glad I am that I stayed with The Sea to its last transcendent sentences. I’ll long remember those sentences, how they sealed the novel perfectly, like varnish on a painting.
Both Ryan and Banville’s novels have exceptional endings (that I won’t say any more about). Unlike other books I’ve read this year, they’ve lingered in my senses, made a home for themselves in my mind and body.
Which brings me to Deborah Levy’s supremely sensual novel Swimming Home, that I read six months ago and still feel deeply. Even now, I can sense the afterglow of the book’s closing pages, which I won’t discuss except to say I’m glad I read them alone.
I read Swimming Home in an Airbnb by the Kent coast. By a big, bay window, the pink-streaked sky bled into the sea while I read on a stranger’s sofa. We don’t read books in a vacuum, and at the time I read Swimming Home, life in London felt difficult. The weekend away was for reading and writing and salty sea air, for reconnecting with what I loved.
It’s rare to read with this level of immersion but it definitely shaped my experience. I told a friend I’d read Swimming Home and she said she’d enjoyed it but had to put it down when reading it on a train. She was travelling with a friend and said she was surprised by the book’s emotional power. I was also surprised by how strongly the novel affected me, how much I feel it now, many months later.
Swimming Home is a family drama set in a holiday villa in the French Riviera. At once, it’s a book to savour and a compulsively readable page-turner. The opening pages are alive with sensual description and dramatic tension. “She asked him to open the window so she could hear the insects calling to each other in the forest. He wound down the window and asked her, gently, to keep her eyes on the road.”
Near the start of the novel, the Jacobs family find a woman floating, face down, in the swimming pool of their villa. When she emerges naked she’s described as “a woman with dripping waist-length hair … She looked like she might be in her twenties, but it was hard to tell because she was frantically skipping from one chair to the another, searching for her dress.” Straight away we sense the woman’s nervous energy. When she introduces herself to the Jacobs family she says: ‘“I’m Kah Kah Kah’ and stammered on for ever until she got to Kitty Finch.”
In the “fierce heat” of the French Riviera, Kitty seems mirage-like. Seeing Kitty’s breasts – “surprisingly full and round for someone so thin” – it occurs to Nina Jacobs, the 14-year-old daughter, that she might be sun-sick. “The only thing that seemed real about the woman was the triangle of golden pubic hair glinting in the sun. The sight of it made Nina fold her arms across her chest and hunch her back in an effort to make her own body disappear.”
Swimming Home seems to be about Kitty and the effect she has on the Jacobs family and their friends. It is about this – in as much as a book is ever about anything – but it’s also a book about creative expression. The clearest example of this is Kitty’s desire to get feedback on her poetry from Joe Jacobs, the father, a famous poet with a traumatic history. The tension between Kitty and Joe is central to the novel but there are other threads on creativity, so subtle and delicate they’re best left for the reader to unravel.
Other themes in Swimming Home include love, grief, jealousy, depression, anxiety, desire… The blend and intensity of emotion is amazing for such a short book. In just over 150 pages, Levy gives us an extremely sensory novel that’s also perfectly plotted.
Levy cites her training as a dramatist as an influence on her fiction. She writes plays as well as novels, short stories and memoirs, which perhaps accounts for the mastery of Swimming Home, how it satisfies the reader on so many levels.
If Ryan’s novel is a fine whiskey, Banville’s a green smoothie, Levy’s is a negroni. A short, strong, intoxicating cocktail.
It’s hard to say what made the book so powerful, beyond some mysterious alchemy. I think specificity has something to do with it. In Swimming Home, Nina doesn’t just wear a bikini, she wears a “cherry-print” bikini. The air by the pool isn’t fragrant or aromatic, it’s thick with the “bittersweet smell of lavender”. Reading Swimming Home, I was immersed in a sensory landscape. Book-drunk, perhaps.
In her book of essays The Art of Fiction, Virginia Woolf says that writing involves a “process of selection”. In life, she says, we’re constantly receiving impressions – “the more one looks the more there is to see”. In Woolf’s words, “the writer’s task is to take one thing and let it stand for twenty”. In this way, the reader is “relieved of the swarm and confusion of life” and characters or situations emerge cleanly.
Through artful omission and specificity, Levy creates a world so vibrant, so sensual, that I felt it as a reader. Six months later, I can still feel the afterglow of this short, emotionally intense novel. Perhaps I’m still a little book-drunk.
A negroni is a short cocktail, with equal measures of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. The story goes that the drink was invented in Florence in 1919. Count Negroni asked the bartender to strengthen his favourite cocktail, the americano, by adding gin in place of soda water. With no mixer, a negroni is pure booze. It’s one drink with the potency of three.
Many of the best drinks – a shot of espresso, a flute of champagne – are short for good reason. If they’re perfectly made, we don’t need very much. Like a good negroni, Swimming Home is short, full-bodied, deeply affecting. Reading it, I felt slightly inebriated, drunk on Levy’s descriptions, seduced by the pull of the story.
In an interview, Levy said that she was changed by the process of writing Swimming Home. I was changed by reading it. Like Banville’s The Sea, Levy’s novel – its exceptional, transcendent ending – gave voice to emotions I had experienced in my own life. Feelings so subtle and complex and all-consuming I thought they were inexpressible.
In Levy’s words: “If a change had happened inside me while I was writing this book, my hunch was that it would happen inside the readers too … I wrote a book that I knew was worth something because the act of writing it had shaken me to the core.”
Read more of my essays and reviews here
For my essay on Deborah Levy’s memoir The Cost of Living, head over to The Quietus