Deborah Levy’s novel, much like the critically acclaimed, Man Booker prize nominated Swimming Home, is heavily literary, full of illusions and heavy symbolism. There are a number of examples of strong literary illusions, such as the presence of a chained Alsatian whose freeing and uncertain survival act as a constant symbol for the precarious and halted life of the novel’s protagonist, Sophia Papastergiadis.
Sophia is in Spain with her invalid mother Rose, who has remortgaged her home in order to seek a cure for the mysterious illness that intermittently robs of her of the use of her legs. The pair live in a rented beach hut, although there are frequent references to Sophia’s home back in London, where she lives in the store room above the coffee shop where she works. Her unfinished PHD in anthropology is a metaphorical weight which Sophia carries with her at all times, as she finds solace with a number of lovers of both genders and becomes pathologically possessive.
Characterisation is Levy’s strong skill, and she does it well here, creating characters which are both symbolic and believable. There is Pablo, the scheming owner of both a local restaurant and the wayward Alsatian mentioned earlier; Ingrid, Sophia’s female lover, who is haunted by a troubled past; and the enigmatic Gomez of the Gomez clinic, who utilises strange methods in his hunt for a cure for Rose’s ills.
The richness of the narrative and the strong literary illusions make this novel and excellent exploration of a number of themes, such as truth, identity, belonging and family.
Despite this, there are periods where the troupes are taken too far. A key example of this is Levy’s portrayal of Sophia’s Greek father, Christos Papastergiadis, a wealthy shipping company owner who abandoned Rose and Sophia in favour of a wife 40 years his junior. Sophia visits the couple and their baby daughter in Greece as she struggles to find a purpose in life. Christos’s new wife, who is not much older than his eldest daughter, is so truly infantile that her depiction borders on caricature. She wears fluffy sheep slippers both in and out of the house, owns framed Donald Duck prints and constantly sucks jellied candies. The deep contrast between herself and Christos, who is shown to be a deeply ruminative and religious man, is almost laughable. When Christos announces that Yorkshire (the home county of his now ex-wife Rose) is “famous for a beer called bitter” the reference is so obvious that Levy may as well have capitalised the adjective.
The heavy symbolism and dense, literary style may put some people off, but this is a multi-layered book, and one which leaves readers with more questions than it does answers. If that is not the point in reading then I don’t know what is.