It’s quintessential Levy. The languid yet precise prose, the fine mind she allows to wander through a series of ideas and connections before getting to the nub: she is in search of a house. In other hands this could read like a script for afternoon TV’s A Place in the Sun, but Levy’s ideal home is one she constructs and reconstructs in her imagination, what she calls her “unreal estate”.
At its best, Real Estate offers the same hard-won, lucid wisdom that made The Cost of Living essential reading for anyone who has a mother or is one. “What does maternal actually mean? If it implies comforting, protecting, teaching, nourishing, encouraging, lying, being the anchor in the storm of life, always being there, it is a tough call on any character to fulfil this roll call of qualities.” Yet I missed the urgency of the earlier book, its frank display of dramatic self-excavation. The deconstruction of the family home, a mother’s death — these are essentially more powerful subjects than literary festivals and writers’ residencies.
If Real Estate settles on a conclusion it is in Levy’s accomplishment at bringing the trilogy, which began as an answer to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write”, full circle: “I suppose what I most value are real humans and imagination. It is possible we cannot have one without the other . . . in this sense, my books are my real estate.” The outcome is a glittering triple echo of books that are as much philosophical discourse as a manifesto for living and writing.
Levy is preoccupied not just with how to write new, freer versions of female characters, but how to become one. The narrator of Real Estate is drily funny, irreverent, curious, even wise; she makes the reader want her for a companion. “It seemed to me all over again that in every phase of living we do not have to conform to the way our life has been written for us, especially by those who are less imaginative than ourselves,” she observes. Each of these books bears several re-readings; together, they offer one version of how a woman might continually rewrite her own story.