A philandering poet’s fatal attraction

What would you do if you found a naked woman floating face down in the swimming pool of your summer vacation villa? The British characters who make such a discovery in this brief, complex and stunning drama don’t reach for their cell phones. It’s July 1994, and we weren’t all addicted to portable electronics then. They also don’t – true to British, stoic reserve – panic and run for a land phone. They’re not sure the woman is dead. (She’s not). It’s a droll and inconvenient moment for the vacationers as the woman they come to know as Kitty Finch rises Venus-like from the pool and frantically searches for her clothes.

The setting is southern France, outside Nice. The vacationers are two couples: Isabel, a war correspondent struggling with an identity crisis; her husband Joe, a famous poet who’s haunted by his Holocaust childhood; their 14-year-old daughter, Nina; and their bankrupt friends, London shop owners Laura and Mitchell. The languorous summer activities provide the perfect tepid backdrop for the explosion about to be visited upon them, with Kitty as the igniter and their personal troubles the unexploded bomb. It starts when Isabel invites Kitty to stay with them (without consulting the others). Clearly, she’s baiting her philandering husband. Soon, to make it worse, the group learns the young, beautiful Kitty intentionally arrived at their villa in pursuit of the poet. More than a fan, she feels she has a “nerve contact” with Joe, and she’s written a poem she wants him to read.

Had the author Deborah Levy opened Swimming Home with the pool scene, she would have set us up with a mildly intriguing premise, but she ramps it up by giving us a glimpse of what’s to come in less than 300 words that begin the story. The future  moment takes place in a car on a mountain road with Kitty a menacing force and Joe regretful over their fling in a hotel room. Levy writes, “When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.” The foreknowledge from this scene creates foreboding that lasts ‘til the end — because the Brits fail to fear Kitty, and we’ve been introduced to a smidgen of the deadly ending.

Day by day the disturbed, often incoherent Kitty mocks Mitchell, woos the teenager Nina, studies the area’s flowers (she says she’s a botanist) and randomly dresses in her birthday suit. The Brits are so caught up in themselves they either can’t see Kitty’s danger or they doubt it. Levy writes, “…[Mitchell] couldn’t work out why he thought someone as sad as she was might be dangerous.” They tolerate her odd behavior just as they tolerate the cloudy pool water and the mouse in the kitchen.

Swimming Home is highly entertaining and profoundly unsettling for the human flaws that make the vacationers so vulnerable. Levy sustains masterful control over Kitty’s slow-building intent to manipulate herself into Joe’s psyche, all the while portraying a wider lens that encompasses the relational complexities of the other characters. That includes not only the vacationers but also the villa’s hippy caretaker, a café owner in lust with Nina and an 80-year-old neighbor, Madeleine Sheridan, who’s a retired physician. Madeleine is the Greek chorus that warns of “the mad girl with her halo of red hair,” knowing first-hand that Kitty is mentally ill.

The book gets its title from the poem Kitty wants Joe to read. She hopes he’ll discuss it with her when he invites her for cocktails at a nearby, upscale hotel on day seven of her stay at the villa. Needless to say, discussion is not what’s foremost on Joe’s mind. And then comes the mountain road scene revealed in part to us in the beginning, followed by a gasp-worthy ending that’s brilliantly executed with Levy’s incisive brevity and vivid prose.

Written in 157 pages, Swimming Home, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a shocking story about the limits we push for love and the denials we invest in to keep it.