Deborah Levy is yet another author who I have been meaning to read for ages. Already shortlisted for the Man Booker for her 2011 novel Swimming Home, her latest book is tipped to make this year’s shortlist also.
Sofia Papastergiadis considers herself a failure. She still lives with her mother (although at the age of 25, that isn’t as unusual as she makes out), an abandoned Ph.D haunts her, and she works as a waitress in a West London coffee shop. Her mother, Rose, is suffering from a mysterious affliction. Her legs have stopped working and no doctor has been able to explain why. The pair travel to Almeria on the Spanish coast, paying a huge fee to the famous Dr Gomez in a bid to find a diagnosis and solution for Rose’s illness.
The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of the novel. Sofia’s Greek father deserted them years ago. She knows that he is now remarried, to a woman only a little older than she is, that he has a baby daughter in Athens, but she hasn’t seen him in eleven years. Sofia and Rose rely heavily on one another, Rose providing the roof over Sofia’s head, Sofia acting as her mother’s carer. There is love but also irritation, the heat of southern Spain adding to the tension in their relationship.
Sofia is feeling trapped and unsure where she is headed, basically like many young women of her age. She gave up her Ph.D to return home to her mother, but that feels more like an excuse, a way of avoiding what comes after academia:
…I would rather work in the Coffee House than be hired to conduct research into why customers prefer one washing machine to another. Most of the students I studied with ended up becoming corporate ethnographers. If ethnography means the writing of culture, market research is a sort of culture (where people live, the kind of environment they inhabit, how the task of washing clothes is divided between members of the community…) but in the end, it is about selling washing machines.
Many of the relationships seem to be characterised by power struggles.Sofia meets Ingrid Bauer, a German who works for the local vintage shop as a seamstress. Ingrid has a boyfriend, Matthew, but is drawn to Sofia, occasionally playing the two off against esch other. She appears to watch Sofia at moments when she is unaware, not that it is certain that Sofia would mind. Sofia also begins an affair with the bearded student who mans the first aid tent on the beach, while Matthew seems to be obsessed by Julieta, spray painting the walls of her father’s clinic.
At times reality seems to be as uncertain as Rose’s illness. There is a mirage-like quality to several of the scenes, as though they are more metaphor than truth. The jellyfish that sting Sofia on several occasions, the medusas, are another example of symbolism, stinging her even from a distance. This is a highly readable book which I got through in only a couple of sittings, and another strong contender the Man Booker shortlist.
Also on the Man Booker Longlist: