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A Nest of One’s Own: Making a Home in Deborah Levy’s “Real Estate”

By Michelle Hui

Claude Monet, Snow Scene at Argenteuil, 1875. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4 cm, The National Gallery, London. From:

“I was also searching for a house in which I could live and work and make a world at my own pace, but even in my imagination this home was blurred, undefined, not real, or not realistic, or lacked realism.”

As winter draws near, the birds have long departed, making their way to warmer climates to build their nests. Likewise, as the festive season unfolds, humans embark on a similar pursuit of warmth, drawn homewards and seeking comfort and shelter in the warmth of human connections amongst the frost. In the stirring conclusion to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy, British author Deborah Levy muses on the concept of home and the people who shape it in Real Estate. With winsome, airy anecdotes, Levy walks us through the various residences that defined her life in her sixties.

From London, Paris, India, Greece, New York and Berlin, Levy embarks on a relentless search for a space of her own. Faced with the proverbial empty nest following her youngest daughter’s departure for university, Levy finds herself in the uncharted waters of her sixties. Drifting between dreams of her imaginary real estate, her London flat, and the temporary homes across the world, Levy’s brief mode of transiency ponders the very fabric of real estate for a woman. What happens to a woman when taken out of the gendered, domestic space of home? What are the properties to her name, and what are the objects and experiences that shape the ever-shifting space of her real and ‘unreal’ estate? Razed and rebuilt over and over again, Levy takes us through the real estate she desires to build, and the legacy she desires to leave behind.

In the first step towards building her estate portfolio, Levy purchases a banana tree outside Shoreditch High Street station. The banana tree later goes on to become the third child in her family, planting roots in the beginning of her new life. One of the several objects that come to take residence in her real estate, Levy goes on to collect character shoes, dried lavender from Provence, two gold mirrors, and so on. Throughout the course of her journey, she loses and keeps some of these treasures, all the while nurturing the desire to see them fit within the mercurial whims of her real estate portfolio.

In the inventory of her life, Levy reveals the sentimentality and dreams she has for her found objects, the bones that sutures her dreams of an elusive, unattainable real estate. Along the way, she encounters a chef in Berlin who speaks of his own real estate dreams - to dismantle a barn in Japan and reconstruct it in Germany. While a pipe dream for now, he takes satisfaction with his geometric Japanese fabrics and futon. In her pilgrimage, Levy contemplates the value and satisfaction of these objects. How do they make our dreams seem less far away? How do they draw our castles in the sky a little closer to the ground, and how do they make your house become a home?

In a book that navigates quietly through spaces, discovering and creating them, Levy rebuilds her life post-divorce, emerging from her experiences to conclude that her real estate, along with the treasures she’s gathered along the way, are the books and the words she leaves behind. Real Estate is a meditative contemplation on the mark we decide to leave behind in the world, and prompts the question - what makes up your real estate? With temperatures dropping and winter beckoning, where and who do we choose to find warmth with this winter?

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