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Real Estate by Deborah Levy

There is an unanswered longing in this book, the sentiment that Virginia Woolf called A Room of One’s Own. Levy turns it into a house of one’s own. The need for real estate, and in particular a grand old house with a pomegranate tree in the garden:

‘I had spent so much of my life peering into the windows of estate agents, searching for my very own domain, my face pressed against the window, along with the ghosts of other dreamers looking for homes we could not afford. Nevertheless, I believed that one day when I grew up, I would earn myself the keys to a house of my own in the Mediterranean with honeysuckle and balconies.’

Not only do we explore the desire to own a house somewhere, but we also travel widely to see many examples. From north London to New York, from Paris to India and the Greek Islands, on the way we consider other’s homes like James Baldwin’s in the South of France and Ingmar Bergman’s on a Swedish island.

I like the way that book operates, the gentle surface of ideas and places, while underneath there are much more unsettling themes and currents, for example:

‘Are women real estate owned by the patriarchy?

And what about women who are rented for sex by men?

Who owns the deeds to the land in that transaction?’

Levy goes on to note that most of the heterosexual males of her age are looked after by their wives at literary events, but recalls a conversation with one of those wives on the fire escape over a crafty cigarette:

‘I regarded her invigorating conversation with me as much more interesting than any of the events I had attended at the festival. Many people in the audience would have enjoyed her thoughts on fragile tyrants, the ways in which love is altered by physical infidelity, and how she had dreamed her breasts were made from glass.’

Not only does the narrative take us to houses and places, but also includes some delightful character observation. Her friend Agnes had split up after a long relationship with Ruth. I loved these observations:

‘Apparently, Ruth had told her she was always on her ‘high horse’ and wanted to pull her off it. The high horse. The high horse. It was always good to see a woman on her high horse. Why had Ruth wanted to take her down? Why bother to pull a woman off her high horse? Storm Ruth.

I think the high horse is supposed to suggest arrogance, or superiority, but I believe in this case it really meant that Agnes has a sense of her own purpose in life, that she got on with the things she wanted to do in the world, which is sometimes called agency or holding the reigns of the high horse and steering it. After all, there is no point in climbing on to a high horse if you don’t know how to ride it. I was fascinated with the high horse and especially when a woman wanted to pull another woman off it. Ruth had spent a long time undermining Agnes and a short time loving her. They were thirty-six when they met and forty-seven when they parted. That was a lot of life, so obviously the horses had come out to play.’

I like the way that threads travel through the book; a story is told and then elements of it will keep reoccurring throughout. Keys feature often as instruments “to enter and exit, open and close, lock and unlock various desirable and undesirable domains.” The carousel horses in her window, become the high horses, and so become symbols for so much more. Levy concludes the book with this wonderful last paragraph:

‘I suppose that what I most value are real human relations and imagination. It is possible we cannot have one without the other. It took me a long time to discard the desire to please those who do not have my best interests at heart and who cannot live warmly with me. I own the books I have written and bequeath the royalties to my daughters. In this sense, my books are my real estate. They are not private property. There are no fierce dogs or security guards at the gate and no signs forbidding anyone to dive, splash, kiss, fail, feel fury or fear or be tender or tearful, to fall in love with the wrong person, go mad, become famous or play on the grass.’

I have started this trilogy of autobiographical works at the end, but I will be sure to go back to the beginning to see what came before.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Hamish Hamilton


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