Friday 15 December 2017

Books: Portrait of female artist

PASSIONATE: Deborah Levy recalls her childhood in apartheid South Africa
PASSIONATE: Deborah Levy recalls her childhood in apartheid South Africa

Rosita Sweetman

Things I Don't Want to Know by Deborah Levy (Notting Hill Editions, £12.00 )

I love Deborah Levy's style and delivery. Passionate, honest, and poetic as hell, Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for her novel Swimming Home in 2012 but has been writing novels, plays and poetry since 1987.

Things I Don't Want to Know represents a departure, both for the author and for Notting Hill Editions, which, in the teeth of the much predicted, imminent collapse of the print industry is publishing a series of essays by modern writers responding to classics.

Levy's task might have daunted lesser beings: respond to George Orwell's famous 1946 essay, Why I Write.

Very sensibly, apart from adopting his chapter heads 'Political Purpose', 'Historical Impulse', 'Sheer Egoism' and 'Aesthetic Enthusiasm', Levy ignores the giant at her shoulder and produces a thoroughly female portrait of the artist.

Once you get through the first section, the weakest in my opinion (England, Mallorca, Poland and China clunking around in a rather undercooked casserole?), you get to the gold.

Brought up in South Africa, where Nelson and Winnie Mandela were friends of her parents, her "normal", i.e. abnormal white apartheid, childhood was shattered by the removal in the middle of the night of her father to prison.

On top of this catastrophe, Levy is sent to Godmother Dory in Durban, distaff of Edward Charles Williams. Their brilliantly drawn, brash daughter Melissa, advises the dumbstruck, seven-year-old Levy to speak up: "Girls have to speak up, cuz no one listens to them anyway."

Alone, homesick, and wide-awake at 5 am, a letter from her dad beside her ("Be sure to say your thoughts out loud and not just in your head") Levy picks up a biro and begins writing.

Metaphorically, and actually, while under intense pressure, the young wordsmith-to-be is finding her voice.

Levy takes us on through heart-stopping descriptions of childhood wallopings, unflinching cameos of the domestic chaos that follows marital break-up (though beloved dad returns, his return is followed by exile for the entire family to England, where the marriage doesn't survive), a smashing riff on mothers at a London school playground, and finding her style in London's greasy spoon cafes. All sketched in spare, biting prose. A cracker of a book.

Irish Independent

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