This slim little novel centres on a group of friends whiling away the summer in an enormous villa on the French Riviera. Fantastically wealthy poet Joe Jacobs (just one of many names he is graced with throughout), his war correspondent wife Isabel and their teenage daughter Nina play host to their best friends Mitchell and Laura. Overlooking them from next door is retired doctor Judith Sheridan and caretaker Juergen. Parachuted into their midst (not literally) is unstable bipolar sufferer Kitty Finch. She’s a fan of Joe’s, an aspiring poet, charming, alluring and extremely dangerous.
Set over just one week, there is not an ounce of fat or a misplaced word to be had. Levy speaks volumes of the self absorbed quartet as they carry on with their insignificant lives, oblivious to the fact Kitty is becoming ever more unbalanced. Only Nina seems to have even the faintest idea there’s even anything wrong with Kitty, and since she’s 14, nobody will listen to a word she has to say of course.
A sense of dread and imminent danger hangs over the novel from the first page, when Kitty is found floating in the pool by the others, an uninvited guest. She’s invited to stay by Joe’s wife and nobody can quite figure out why she extends such a charitable invitation. While the reason itself may not be too taxing on the brain to work out, the outcome pleasingly refuses to take the obvious path set out for it.
This is Deborah Levy’s first novel in 15 years and what a short sharp shock it is. Clocking in at under 180 pages, her remarkable use of language means that this book does feel an awful lot longer, but I still think its brevity is also its undoing. There is so much going on and with so many characters, that no matter how deft a wordsmith Levy is, this feels like an appetiser rather than the full on banquet you’re hoping for. Though I have to say, it’s a VERY tasty appetiser.