Posted 20 hours ago

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

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It wrestles, too, with the timeless question of how to form one's own distinct adult identity in the shadow of a difficult parent. DEEP DOWN is a beautifully constructed and unnervingly assured debut which deeply moved and impressed me. One of the remarkable things about Deep Down is how finely attuned it is to the way grief is intimately tangled up with ridiculousness. 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. Deep Down is a wonderfully astute and often hilarious look at sibling relationships, intimacy and family repression.

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. 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. It's valid that it all goes back to their upbringing and childhood but while we dug deeper, we didn't get to go broader. 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.It wrestles, too, with the timeless question of how to form one’s own distinct adult identity in the shadow of a difficult parent.

And the novel is a serious and very accomplished examination of what it means to love and grieve for someone who might seem unlovable. 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.There are no histrionics here, nor any glib resolutions, but a superbly observed exploration of intimacy and its failings. 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”. The withholding of information is masterfully sustained as we come to understand why they have responded to their father’s death with such profound ambiguity. 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. I couldn't believe this was a debut novel, it certainly pulled at my heart strings and bought reality back to life.

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. Anyone who knew of Imogen West-Knights as one half of the pitch-perfect satirical Twitter account Bougie London Literary Woman might have made assumptions about how her first novel would look: perhaps a smart, witty comedy skewering pretensions in the world of media or publishing. West-Knights is also skilful in her depiction of domestic abuse, rarely showing it directly; the potential for an outburst, and the way the children learn to recognise the warning signs, is more chilling than any description of a punch thrown.

Deep Down begins as Billie, a twentysomething Londoner, and her older brother Tom, a “failed actor” living in Paris, face unexpected news.

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