Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted novel has, at first sight, all the ingredients of a standard villa holiday-from-Hell story, or indeed film. But this creepy and unsettling tale has more layers to it than most.
Two couples, famous poet Joe Jacobs and his foreign correspondent wife Isabel and their friends, fat Mitchell and tall Laura, share a villa outside Nice for a sweltering summer in 1994. Joe and Isabel’s 14-year-old daughter Nina is the uncomfortable and bored observer of the grown-ups’ bickering, and of rapidly surfacing misery.
Mitchell is in a permanent rage, which takes the form of shooting and trapping any animal he can lay his hands on — it turns out that their business has gone bust and his life is rapidly disintegrating. Joe’s real name is Jozef Nowogrodzki; he has been haunted all his life by the loss of his parents and young sister in the Holocaust. Isabel has been semi-absent from the family for years, disappearing for months on end to report the horrors of contemporary wars, leaving him to bring up Nina alone.
Joe, an unfaithful husband, associates Isabel’s neglect of her daughter with his own abandonment by his parents, but ‘he understood that it made more sense of her life to be shot at in war zones than lied to by him in the safety of her own home’. So there’s plenty of guilt all round.
A deranged and beautiful girl called Kitty Finch breaks into this less than idyllic scene and becomes the catalyst for a tragic chain of events. She first appears floating naked in the swimming pool. Isabel invites her to stay, inexplicably, given Joe’s philandering habits: it seems she is looking for an excuse to leave him finally. Kitty is there for two reasons: she is stalking Joe, with whom she feels a close, almost mystical, affinity, and wants him to read her poem (called ‘Swimming Home’). She also wants revenge on the old doctor who lives next door, and who was responsible for getting her sectioned and given electric shock treatment back in England.
Kitty infuriates and captivates them all with her accurate and clear-sighted observations. Mitchell is driven mad by her wayward behaviour (she wanders around naked and eats the chocolate he has put in his rat-trap), and Joe falls for her, of course, with tragic consequences.
Deborah Levy packs a lot of symbolism into this short book: rain seems important, as do the stones with holes in them that Kitty collects (Nina wants to ‘fall through the holes out of the world’); the swimming pool is compared to a stone coffin. The minor characters — a bar-keeper who looks like Mick Jagger, the pony-tailed caretaker Jurgen — provide unnecessary distraction to the unfolding tragedy of Joe, Kitty and the rest of the household.
The theme of alienation and the impossibility of coping with life under unbearable circumstances, whether in the present or from the past, is drummed in: Kitty sums it up — twice — when she says to Joe: ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely. You did not get home at all.’
Nina, in a dreamy afterword 17 years later, is still conducting imaginary conversations with her father, still haunted by the past.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012