172pp, paperback, £10
Witty, modern and unpredictable, Deborah Levy’s latest novel, which takes two middle-class families sharing a villa in southern France and puts them down somewhere less sunny, is now on the 2012 Man Booker shortlist.
Julia Pascal’s prescient review in The Independent compared the book to Mrs Dalloway: ‘Although a short work, it has an epic quality. This is a prizewinner. ‘
Insightful and subversive, this novel was the subject of the very first bookoxygen extract slot, in the spring of 2012 and is happily revived in the week of the Man Booker shortlist announcement.
Now sample for yourself.
The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved from stone by a family of Italian stonecutters living in Antibes. The body was floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade.
‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water. He could feel the sun burning into the shirt his Hindu tailor had made for him from a roll of raw silk. His back was on fire. Even the roads were melting in the July heatwave.
His daughter, Nina Jacobs, fourteen years old, standing at the edge of the pool in her new cherry-print bikini, glanced anxiously at her mother. Isabel Jacobs was unzipping her jeans as if she was about to dive in. At the same time she could see Mitchell and Laura, the two family friends sharing the villa with them for the summer, put down their mugs of tea and walk towards the stone steps that led to the shallow end. Laura, a slender giantess at six foot three, kicked off her sandals and waded in up to her knees. A battered yellow lilo knocked against the mossy sides, scattering the bees that were in various stages of dying in 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 gong 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.
Yesterday they had all been discussing a newspaper article about a ninety-four-kilo bear that had walked down from the mountains in Los Angeles and taken a dip in a Hollywood actor’s pool. The bear was on heat, according to the Los Angeles Animal Services. The actor had called the authorities. The bear was shot with a tranquillizer gun and then released in the nearby mountains. Joe Jacobs had wondered out loud what it was like to be tranquillized and then have to stumble home. Did it ever get home? Did it get dizzy and forgetful and start to hallucinate? Perhaps the barbiturate inserted inside the dart, also known as ‘chemical capture’, had made the bear’s legs shake and jerk? Had the tranquillizer helped the bear cope with life’s stressful events, calming its agitated mind so that it now pleaded with the authorities to throw it small prey injected with barbiturate syrups? Joe had only stopped this riff when Mitchell stood on his toe. As far as Mitchell was concerned it was very, very hard to get the arse-hole poet known to his readers as JHJ (Joe to every one else except his wife) to shut the fuck up.
Nina watched her mother dive into the murky green water and swim towards the woman. Saving the lives of bloated bodies floating in rivers was probably the sort of thing her mother did all the time. Apparently television ratings always went up when she was on the news. Her mother disappeared to Northern Ireland and Lebanon and Kuwait and then she came back as if she’d just nipped down the road to buy a pint of milk. Isabel Jacobs’ hand was about to clasp the ankle of whoever it was floating in the pool. A sudden violent splash made Nina run to her father, who grasped her sunburnt shoulder, making her scream out loud. When a head emerged from the water, its mouth open and gasping for breath, for one panicked second she thought it was roaring like a bear.
A woman with dripping waist-length hair climbed out of the pool and ran to one of the plastic recliners. She looked like she might be in her early twenties, but it was hard to tell because she was frantically skipping from one chair to another, searching for her dress. It had fallen on to the paving stones but no one helped her because they were staring at her naked body. Nina felt light-headed in the fierce heat. The bitter-sweet smell of lavender drifted towards her, suffocating her as the sound of the woman’s panting breath mingled with the drone of the bees in the wilting flowers. It occurred to her she might be sun sick, because she felt as if she was going to faint. In a blur she could see the woman’s breasts were surprisingly full and round for someone so thin. Her long thighs were joined to the jutting hinges of her hips like the legs of the dolls she used to bend and twist as a child. The only things that seemed real about the woman was the triangle of golden pubic hair glinting in the sun. The sight of it made Nina fold her arms across her chest and hunch her back in an effort to make her own body disappear.
‘Your dress is over there.’ Joe Jacobs pointed to the pile of crumpled blue cotton lying under the recliner. They had all been staring at her for an embarrassingly long time. The woman grabbed it and deftly slipped the flimsy dress over her head.
‘Thanks. I’m Kitty Finch by the way.’
What she actually said was I’m Kah Kah Kah and stammered on for ever until she got to Kitty Finch. Everyone couldn’t wait for her to finish saying who she was.
Nina realized her mother was still in the pool. When she climbed up the stone steps, her wet swimming costume was covered in silver pine needles.
‘I’m Isabel. My husband thought you were a bear.’
Joe Jacobs twisted his lips in an effort not to laugh.
‘Of course I didn’t think she was a bear.’
Kitty Finch’s eyes were grey like the tinted windows of Mitchell’s hire car, a Mercedes, parked on the gravel at the front of the villa.
‘I hope you don’t mind me using the pool. I’ve just arrived and it’s sooo hot. There’s been a mistake with the rental dates.’
‘What sort of mistake?’ Laura glared at the young woman as if she had just been handed a parking ticket.
‘Well, I thought I was staying here from this Saturday for a fortnight. But the caretaker…’
‘If you can call a lazy stoned bastard like Jurgen a caretaker.’ Just mentioning Jurgen’s name brought Mitchell out in a disgusted sweat.
‘Yeah, Jurgen says I’ve got the dates all wrong and now I’m going to lose my deposit.’
Jurgen was a German hippy who was never exact about anything. He described himself as a ‘nature man’ and always had his nose buried in Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.
Mitchell wagged his finger at her. ‘There are worse things than losing your deposit. We were about to have you sedated and driven up to the mountains.’