20 Books of Summer #10 & 11 – Levy & Barry

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

This was the book that brought Deborah Levy to wider attention. Her fourth novel, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. Last year I read her latest novel, Hot Milk which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker, (reviewed here), so I was prepared for a challenging read.

This novel follows the fortunes of a group on holiday who have rented a villa near Nice. There’s Joe and Isabel with their teenage daughter Nina, and family friends Laura and Mitchell. It’s Saturday and they’ve arrived to find something in the pool…

‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water. […]
‘What do you think it is, Isabel?’
Nina could see from where she was standing that it was a woman swimming naked under the water. She was on her stomach, both arms stretched out like a starfish, her long hair floating like seaweed at the sides of her body.
‘Jozef thinks she’s a bear,’ Isabel Jacobs replied in her detached war-correspondent voice.
‘If it’s a bear I’m going to have to shoot it,.’ Mitchell had recently purchased two antique Persian handguns at the flea market in Nice and shooting things was on his mind.

Of course it’s not a bear. The young woman is Kitty Finch. Once out of the pool and covered up, she apologises but it was so hot. Jurgen, the German hippy caretaker had got her rental dates wrong. Everyone is surprised when Isabel offers her the spare bedroom in the villa.

As you might guess, having Kitty there will upset the balance between the party which is already on middle-class tentahooks. By asking her to stay, Isabel is testing her husband because of course Joe will be attracted to Kitty, Nina will look up to her. But Kitty’s presence there is not as innocent as she claims. Joe is an acclaimed poet and Kitty has a set of his books in her luggage along with a poem she’s written for him. She also admits she’s off her meds for depression. She is extremely thin, hardly eats and tends to wander around naked.

This was a very unsettling novel – more so earlier in the story than Hot Milk. Right from scene-setting flash-forward prologue, we know that Kitty will cause mayhem. The suspense is there right from the start, so we think we know what’s going to happen, but that’s only part of the story!  The four central characters, Isabel, Joe, Nina and Kitty,  are all fascinating in the detail Levy is able to build into this slim novel. The others add some light and shadow but take supporting roles for the most part. Like Hot Milk,  nothing is overwritten, its subversiveness is subtle and it can take a while for the import of what you’ve read to sink in, which appears to be Levy’s modus operandi – I like it. (9/10)

Read also John Self’s excellent review from the Guardian.

Source: Own copy.   Paperback, 176 pages.  BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

From one experimental novel to another – in fact Kevin Barry’s novel won the Goldsmiths Prize in 2015 – which is for fiction that breaks the mould – which this strange novel does in spades.

It’s 1978. John is 37 and is at a creative impasse. He has come to Ireland to visit the tiny island that he owns for the first time. He reckons that three nights spent alone there in a tent should let him work everything out of his system and free him from his past. This John is not just any old John though – the clue’s in the title. He’s John Lennon – and this novel is based upon the truth. Lennon really did buy an island off the west coast of Ireland called Dornish.

As it begins, it’s the early hours of the morning and John is in a taxi on his way to a hotel before setting off for his island. The driver asks:

Go on then.
Will we chance a bit of Luxembourg?
Yeah, let’s try a little Luxy.
But they are playing Kate Bush away on her wiley, windy fucking moors.
Question, he says.
What the fuck is wiley?
Does she not say winding?
She says wiley.
Well . . .
Turn it off, he says.
Witchy fucking screeching.

That conversation, with no speech marks and few indicators of who is speaking except by the words they use is typical.  It’s also very funny – as you’d expect from the Liverpudlian wit of the Beatle. But then on the next page will be a gorgeously described scene, like:

And the season is at its hinge. The moment soon will drop its weight to summer. The river is a rush of voices over its ruts and tunnels into the soft black flesh of the night and woods…

So we have this duality to the text. Razor-sharp dialogue contrasting with lush description.  It’s both lovely and bonkers at the same time. Barry has other tricks up his sleeve too, inserting himself into the text to tell the story of how Lennon bought his island, writing certain scenes as screenplays.

Through it all though is John’s strange road-trip. He just wants to get to his island but it’s not that simple – the press is on his tail – it’s very difficult to move around anonymously. He takes his lead from Cornelius the driver, who is a stand-out character. He knows all the hidden places, and they remain one step ahead of the press, eventually ending up at the remote Amethyst Hotel, where a bunch of hippies hang out. John just wants to get to his island though and to do his primal screaming.

I’m sure that if I’d read the Irish greats – Joyce and Beckett, I’d have got a lot more out of this book.  I’d wager that Barry could be their inheritor in experimental style.  Barry has obviously researched Lennon comprehensively, although I welcomed the explanatory meta-chapter, it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the novel. I could have done with more Cornelius and less of Joe Director and the hippies of the Amethyst Hotel which rather plateaued the already vague story.  Of the Beatles, if I had to pick one, it would have been George, I never warmed to John somehow and maybe this bias in my own opinions made it harder for me to fully enjoy Beatlebone.  I couldn’t divorce the John of the book from the Beatle in my head with his strong Liverpudlian accent. Looking back at it to pick some quotes, I can now see the beauty and comedy in the writing and I’m keen to read more by Barry (7.5/10)

For another opinion, read Kim’s review here – she’s a John fan!

Source: Own copy.   Kevin Barry, Beatlebone, Canongate 2015. Paperback, 272 pages.   BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link).


7 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #10 & 11 – Levy & Barry

  1. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for the link to my review. I absolutely adored this book… it just ticked all the boxes for me… but I knew very little about it when I began it… I just got swept up in the current of the story. Prior to this, I had tried to read other Barry books but hadn’t got very far…

  2. JacquiWine says:

    Yes, unsettling is the word for Swimming Home. There is a strange sense of foreboding throughout the story, almost as if something dreadful could happen at any moment…

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