So many books, so many great writers and so little time to discover them all. You know what that’s like. And I have never been ahead of the curve when it comes to what’s new and trending. I still haven’t started on the third series of Killing Eve, for example, or watched anything other than the first episode of Normal People. And it’s taken me until last month to discover the author Deborah Levy.
The Path to Literary Greatness
Clearly I am a late starter, which is another reason for liking Deborah Levy. She really only hit the mainstream when she was fifty-two years old, which gives an inordinate amount of hope to other long-term writers for whom that big break remains elusive. Her work is varied, encompassing plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company from way back in the early eighties, to short stories, poems and novels, all with varying degrees of commercial success. The path to becoming a household name is by no means straightforward or even guaranteed, as anyone who has had a novel published but still pays the bills courtesy of a myriad other jobs will attest. Levy’s first novel, Beautiful Mutants, was published in 1987.
Despite publishing two more over the intervening years, Swimming Home had been rejected by all the big publishers before being picked up by a more indie outfit, And Other Stories, in 2011 and going on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.
From this I take the message to be: never give up!
Out of Chaos Comes Creation
I also take heart from the fact that her star really only began to rise when all else seemed to be falling apart at the seams. With a broken marriage and children to support, she could well have given up and buried her head in the sand, crying ‘woe is me’ and ‘life is so unfair’ etcetera, but it was out of this chaos and ruin that she actually found her true voice. So it is even more wonderful that her writing is now achieving something approaching cult status.
If you really want to get to know her better, check out her “living autobiography”. It’s in three parts: Things I Don’t Want to Know (2014) , The Cost of Living (2018) and Real Estate (released last month).
As for Levy’s novels, most will whisk you away to foreign destinations, so are great after being starved of travelling abroad in our real lives for so long. You will also find them populated by weird and wonderful characters, who will stay with you long after you close the covers. My personal recommendation would be Hot Milk (2016), which made it onto the shortlist again for The Man Booker and also the Goldsmiths Prize.
This is the story of twenty-five year old Sofia and her rather wanting parents. It opens with Sofia and her mother Rose, in southern Spain–not so much for a holiday but in search of a cure for Rose’s mysterious (imagined?) paralysis that sees her largely confined to a wheelchair. What they find is a doctor of questionable skill, though perhaps that isn’t important given that Rose seems more determined to be ill than well. Sofia also reconnects with her estranged Greek father, Christos, who has remarried and whose new family (a wife who is barely older than Sofia and a baby daughter) have completely erased the family that were in his life before. With these two sets of parents, it’s not surprising that Sofia has struggled to really find herself, despite being academically bright and part way through a PhD.
She drifts through her days in both Spain and Athens, finding lovers on the Spanish beach in the form of Juan, who tends to her jellyfish stings over in the medical hut and Ingrid, a seamstress, who sews her a shirt with a word stitched into the fabric…. But, in true Levy style, nothing is quite as it first seems.
So if you are looking for something to read this month, check out Deborah Levy, my new literary-girl-crush (move over Katherine Center, whose Things You Save in a Fire was my ‘Hot Milk’ moment of last year). It’s great when you discover something or someone completely new (even if the rest of the world were there long before you).