The List: swimming pool novels
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It’s only a few weeks now before many of us will decamp to sit on the beach or beside a pool and immerse ourselves in the summer’s books. While the sea is clearly capricious, both in literature and life, pools offer the illusion of control and order. Yet novels about (rather than merely for reading by) pools offer a dire warning: somehow, whether it’s Los Angeles noir, JG Ballard’s empty ghosts of pools or Alan Hollinghurst’s aquatic settings – from the eponymous Swimming-Pool Library (1988) to the French pool in The Line Of Beauty (2004) – it never turns out well. Here are five pools that mirror the action of their respective novels.
1. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
“You know, I haven’t used this pool all summer.” All through the novel, Jay Gatsby’s pool has been waiting like the gun above the fireplace in a Chekhov play. Although the parties at his East Egg mansion have all thronged around it, not until the end of the book does Fitzgerald’s hero take his own first – and last – dip of the season.
2. Afterlife by Sean O’Brien (2009)
It is the long hot summer of 1976, and three poets have taken to the Welsh Marches to simmer amid dramas of ambition and resentment. The pool at Moon House – “clean but very dark, as though of uncertain depth” – is the setting for a party that involves Hell’s Angels, two comic German urban terrorists called Irmgard and Dieter, a momentous bonfire and copious quantities of LSD.
3. The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (2010)
“When I returned from San Ceterino late in the afternoon, I found that Mark and his friends had thrown half the food in our kitchen into the swimming pool. Through the clear water I could see a panettone dissolving into a shimmer of red and green crystallised fruit, while the poolside tiles were smeared with yolks and broken shell fragments.” After this opening, the novel diverts on a leisurely flashback through a fantastical version of Oxford, a hallucinogenic update of Brideshead Revisited – but that pool and its soupy contents are always waiting for the right moment to reappear.
4. The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (2010)
The swimming pool of a castle in Italy – a “grey new world of glass and opacity” – is the stage upon which Amis’s characters disport themselves, hatching farcical romantic plots and watching each other all too keenly while pretending not to: sneaking a tantalising glimpse of one of his fellow guests leaves the hero “communing with an image that was fated, for now, to remain in the loneliest wilderness of his peripheral vision”.
5. Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (2011)
Two fissiparous couples arrive at their French holiday home to find a pool “more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures” – and what seems to be a corpse “floating in the deep end, where the line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade”. This is in fact a live – and naked – young stranger who will haunt both their holiday and their pool.