In her latest book, the protagonist's psyche splits, leaving questions about how past relationships inform our presentby Francesca Wade / December 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
Strange things happen in Deborah Levy’s novels. People send birds’ eggs in the post, arrange rabbit tails in vases, wear capes made of swan feathers and flirt with strangers under crystal chandeliers, and eat the chocolate left out for rats. They are drawn to water: sometimes they float through azure pools in leopard-skin bikinis, at other times they thrash around fully dressed, or drown. Characters set fire to things—someone’s hair, the zoo, themselves (a swig of petrol and a cigarette). They want to communicate but forget how to speak, or find themselves speaking languages others don’t understand. Often, they are assumed to be ill or insane. Objects break and shatter and dissolve—a pearl necklace, a laptop screen, a faux-Greek urn. Sometimes there’s a gun—carefully wrapped in a drawer, or lying on the table.
These moments of fracture reward close attention. Levy’s novels often take place against precarious political backdrops—the Greek financial crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, anti-colonial uprisings in 1950s Algeria, consumer capitalism under Thatcher—where borders and systems are being made and unmade. Her characters, too, are usually in transition, unsettled in temporary homes, waiting at airports, riding escalators, or trying to cross a road. From myriad angles, Levy’s work examines the queasy states of dislocation, dispossession, alienation and their attendant anxieties and desires.
Her characters rarely have a straightforward answer to the question “Where are you from?” or even “What is your name?” Lapinski, the heroine of her first novel Beautiful Mutants (1989), is a migrant whose “mother was the ice-skating champion of Moscow.” Sent to London after her parents died, she joins a group of outcasts struggling for survival in exile. In Swallowing Geography, which came out four years later, a character called JK (for Kerouac) wanders through European cities “looking for rooms and coffee and company and comfort,” and searching fruitlessly for her “redemptive homeland”; in 2016’s Hot Milk, Sofia wishes she could speak Greek, the language of her estranged father, who has set up home elsewhere with a new wife and child while Sofia cares for her hypochondriac mother. Unmoored from the usual external markers of identity—family, language, nationality,…