Thursday, October 2, 2014

Deborah Levy's Things I Don't Want to Know

Isn't this a great title? It's a great book, too; one of the most skillfully wrought I have read in a long time. Things I Don't Want to Know is Deborah Levy's story of becoming a writer, initially by listing, as an adolescent, all the things she didn't want to know growing up in apartheid South Africa. By that she means things she wishes she'd never experienced. It's not a chronological tale; rather, it is a collection of musings and reminiscences, organized into the template of George Orwell's famous essay "Why I Write." That of course had me look up that essay and read it.

Things I Don't Want to Know is that kind of a book--it makes you do things. While an easy read, I was nevertheless keenly aware of being in the hands of a sophisticated writer, of being served a piece of literature someone had taken great pains to create. Immediately upon finishing this slim volume (while sitting under an air conditioner in baking-hot Tel Aviv this summer), I made notes, trying to figure out the various symbolisms, the pacing, the structure. The prose, the metaphorial details, the emotional touch points, they all fit together nicely to form a shimmering mosaic, giving the reader a glimpse of Levy's journey as a writer, especially a writer who is also a mother.

You have to listen in for about 3 minutes until she talks about Things I Don't Want to Know, but it's worthwhile.

Things I Don't Want to Know intrigued me enough to watch every interview I could find with Levy on youtube (she's not only a terrific writer, she's also regally beautiful), and to get her other books from the library. (It's a sure sign that a writer's work resonates with me when I seek out his/her other works.) Her short novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and is waiting on my stack to be read. I found the short stories in her collection Black Vodka not quite as engaging as her memoir, but they do deliver a punch in their denseness and almost brutal swiftness.

Read my review of Things I Don't Want to Know here. It has definitely earned a permanent spot on my book shelf, and that says something since, as longtime readers know, I've become more ruthless about purging my shelves.


  1. Thanks for pointing her out, and for the link to your review!

  2. Annette, your commentary here about Deborah Levy and your review of Things I Don't Want to Know for the Jewish Book Council took me back in time to two snippets from my own writing: one in an article about third grade classroom rapport for School & Community when our older daughter was a newborn (in which I mentioned how orange peels left on a sidewalk let me know I had arrived at a certain student's home) and the other in a Christmas letter (yes, I know, but....) when I wrote about her trip to Germany and France with a side trip to the island of Majorca off the coast of Spain with her friend Jan (and wondering how many of our conservative relatives would think Jan was a girl and who would figure out that Jan was her boy friend at the time).

    1. Barbara, thanks for sharing how this review took you back to your own memories. I especially love that the orange peels resonated with you because even months after reading Deborah Levy's book, the orange peels have stayed with me. What power there can be in such a small detail!