by Deborah Levy
I had heard quite mixed reviews of this novel but it was on the staff picks shelf at the very lovely Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath so I took a chance. I can see why it has divided people. As the blurb says, “it wears its darkness lightly”.
The set-up is that familiar one of the middle-class English family holidaying in a villa on the French Riviera when a stranger intrudes. Or is it? There are clues throughout that things are not what they seem and to the last page I was not sure if all or any of the events recounted had actually happened.
“He leaned his head out of the window and felt the cold mountain air sting his lips…They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up…He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.'”
What it appears to be is the story of famous poet Joe Jacobs and his absent war correspondent wife Isabel, whose marriage is breaking down. But there’s also their teenage daughter Nina, childlike for her 14 years but trying to be one of the adults. And there’s family friends Laura and Mitchell, a couple who run a boutique shop in London and who never seem comfortable in this holiday setting. And then there’s Kitty Finch, the stranger who turns up floating naked in their outdoor swimming pool, unembarrassed by her nakedness or the apparent mix-up that has brought her there.
There are some plot threads that seem so inevitable that Levy has put their conclusions on the first page to save the reader wondering. Yes, we do have a philandering husband and a beautiful, strange young woman thrown in his path. Yes, we do have characters dealing with depression and thoughts of death. And if you take it all at face value then you might say that what happens is no more than the sum of these parts. But I think that the writing demands more of its reader.
There are two obfuscating themes: identity and fiction. Joe, we learn early on, is Jozef to his wife, JHJ to his readers. Everyone lies or withholds information or tells different versions of the truth. Not only is Joe a poet, but Kitty is an aspiring writer eager for his opinion of her work, and then later in a section told from Nina’s perspective there are short poems thrown into the narrative as if she, too, is a poet, an inventor of fictions. Characters seem to repeat each other’s words or actions as if the novel is being rewritten even as you read it.
“No one dared say they minded, because the war correspondent was controlling them all. Like she had the final word or was daring them to contradict her. The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”
Add to all this that two characters have a history of depression and related illnesses and a third character is constantly stoned, and you have yourself a thoroughly unreliable narrative. What seems like a quick, easy, fluid read becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.
Published 2011 by And Other Stories.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.