Posted 20 hours ago

Deep Down: the 'intimate, emotional and witty' 2023 debut you don't want to miss

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Both are drifting, distant from each other and their mother, until this death shakes to the foundation the defences they have built over the years against the violence of their family history. There was potential for some interesting explorations on family dynamics, domestic violence and complicated grief, but that didn't happen here. Millenials philosophising about mundane things while roaming around the streets of Paris and surviving on bread and water.

When Billie stays in Tom’s cramped garret, he recognises that she “sleeps as she always has, on her front, arms pinned behind her and her face squashed up by the pillow like someone being punched”. When their explorations lead them to the infamous Paris catacombs, they will finally be forced to face the secrets lurking in their past that illuminate the questions in their present. The story is about Tom and Billie, they have both had a bereavement in the family and seeing as they both are so far away from each other they decide to reconnect and hope that being together will help with the grief.They are repairing the scenery, rebuilding the set on which their performance of normal life takes place. But those who have encountered loss will recognise how agonisingly apt the backdrop is here – a strange place of echoes, shadows and impenetrable darkness. One of the remarkable things about Deep Down is how finely attuned it is to the way grief is intimately tangled up with ridiculousness.

This perceptive account of the undercurrents that shape our family relationships and the ways in which they play out in adulthood had me gripped.We see the book flit back to them as children and them now as they attempt to get their lives back on track. Perhaps what is bravest about the novel’s artfully inconclusive ending is the painful acceptance that, with grief, there may never be a clear way out into the light. There is a LOT of description of movement from one place to another, which I find absolutely exhausting as a reader. The only thing I would say (and it may well have been updated in the finished copies), was that it would’ve been helpful to have time frames detailed as it did jump around and you kind of had to guess when a flashback was etc.

Deep Down examines that which we would rather suppress - grief, shame, hurt - with unflinching verve while treading a careful line between finding the absurd in the humane, and the humane in the absurd. Dazed by grief, the siblings spend days wandering the streets, both helping and hurting each other in the process. The climax of the book is a visit by Tom and Billie, along with Tom’s workmates, to the Paris catacombs, in a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for the hero’s descent to the underworld to confront the monster.It wrestles, too, with the timeless question of how to form one's own distinct adult identity in the shadow of a difficult parent. Billie, who has a ‘plain, mashed potato sort of face’, lives in London, while Tom (a failed actor, whose only success was in a Christmas advert) has moved to Paris to work in a bar. Twentysomething siblings Billie and Tom are thrown together in Paris in the immediate aftermath of their father’s sudden death. She was shortlisted for the Portobello Prize 2017 and shortlisted for the FT/Bodley Head Essay Prize 2018. The 103 third parties who use cookies on this service do so for their purposes of displaying and measuring personalized ads, generating audience insights, and developing and improving products.

Billie's chair screeches and she begins to pick up bits of a jar with a careful thumb and forefinger. Away from the ‘tourist bit’ of the catacombs – the part filled with bones moved from the city’s cemeteries – is an extensive network of claustrophobic pathways beneath the everyday, visible level of the city. Billie and her mother, Lisa, steadfastly refer to their father’s “illness”; it is left to Tom to voice the unsayable: “Maybe the only thing that was actually wrong with him was that he was a bad person. The narrative voice is fluent and assured, with an eye for detail and original images: a cup of tea is “crunchy with limescale”; clearing up after one of their father’s rages is “rebuilding the set on which their performance of normal life takes place”. I found Tom’s story more compelling but maybe that’s just because I love Paris and can’t resist a bit of romance 🤷‍♀️ Together the siblings make for some uncomfortable reading, finding any reason to pick at each other and disagree until it all comes to a head in the catacombs (loved this little sidebar of the story, fascinating!

Imogen West Knights reveals family silence and repression in a way which feels almost agonisingly true to life. Attention is directed to the complicated tenderness and shared history between them, existing regardless of an intractable awkwardness. The novel is a serious and very accomplished examination of what it means to love and grieve for someone who might seem unlovable. This is a tender story about families and how you need them to cope through some of the worse possible times of your lives. Woozily wandering between the arrondissements, the siblings dodge tourists and tiptoe around each other’s feelings, awaiting news of funeral plans.

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