Deep Down: the 'intimate, emotional and witty' 2023 debut you don't want to miss
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A less assured novelist might have shied away from bringing a narrative with themes of concealment, sublimated emotion and repressed history to a head in a subterranean setting. Deep Down begins as Billie, a twentysomething Londoner, and her older brother Tom, a “failed actor” living in Paris, face unexpected news. 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. This perceptive account of the undercurrents that shape our family relationships and the ways in which they play out in adulthood had me gripped. What West-Knights does so effectively here is to make no distinction between past and present; incidents from childhood are related in the same continuous present tense as the current events in Paris, with nothing so clunky as dates or chapter headings to mark the switch.
Imogen handles complicated family dynamics and the unspoken things that come between us with remarkable sensitivity and insight, as well as perfect dark humour that is so much a part of navigating grief. 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”. As the setting for the climax of Imogen West-Knights’s subtle and compelling debut Deep Down, it is certainly fitting: in the wake of their father William’s death, the siblings begin to explore hidden and submerged memories from their childhood.A brilliant page-turner - I also wanted to pause every few paragraphs and read aloud as a treat for whoever happened to be sitting next to me. Dazed by grief, the siblings spend days wandering the streets, both helping and hurting each other in the process. There are scenes of ‘goo spattered all over the floor’, interrupted by a policeman ‘wearing a chunky black vest thing’, and dramatic arguments where the most tragic result is a lack of ice creams ‘in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog’. To be fair, I picked it up at a friend’s house but after 20 pages or so I literally threw it across the room.
Twentysomething siblings Billie and Tom are thrown together in Paris in the immediate aftermath of their father’s sudden death. What initially seem to be the hallmarks of any repressed family – an inability to discuss death; tensions between divorced parents; a repeated insistence that everyone is ‘fine’ – become, as the novel unfolds, something far more disconcerting. I think if these lengthy descriptions of inane journeys had instead been used as deep dives into character psyches I would have felt more connected to Billie and Tom.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. For me, the highlights of this book were the Paris location and the friends and family who surround Billie and Tom - they brought joy and lightness where there wasn’t much. I’m definitely categorising this one in the ‘sad girl reads’ section because it’s a pretty bleak and edgy take on family and grief. 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! But those who have encountered loss will recognise how agonisingly apt the backdrop is here – a strange place of echoes, shadows and impenetrable darkness.
This was quite an interesting read about a brother and sister coming to terms with the death of their abusive father. Secondly, I think that the story could have used additional layers on top of the grief and resentment they were experiencing in the present day. 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. I just wish it was easier to follow and that we got to know the characters even better so that those moments held more weight. And the novel is a serious and very accomplished examination of what it means to love and grieve for someone who might seem unlovable.She was shortlisted for the Portobello Prize 2017 and shortlisted for the FT/Bodley Head Essay Prize 2018. I would wager that West-Knights herself is a drama kid at heart and they should know that this idea is a little bit tired. This is a tender story about families and how you need them to cope through some of the worse possible times of your lives. It should be a time to comfort each other, but there's always been a distance to their relationship. When the narrative loops back to the protagonists’ earlier lives, her observations of the nine to five are hilariously unforgiving: “At work, Billie spends most of her time with Martin, her direct superior, a lumpy man of about forty-five with back problems that he refers to as often as possible.