I came across this book at a publicity training day initially but was intrigued as soon as I’d seen the release and mention of The Book Thief so when I saw the wonderful editor Ruth Knowles offering out review copies, I quickly asked for one of my own to read. It’s written by Gavirel Savit and is out 28th January, from Bodley Head (PRHC), £9.99.
To review in one word: stunning.
‘Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Łania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She’s alone.
And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.
The Swallow Man is not Anna’s father—she knows that very well—but she also knows that, like her father, he’s in danger of being taken, and like her father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced. She follows him into the wilderness.
Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgment, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man.
Destined to become a classic, Gavriel Savit’s stunning debut reveals life’s hardest lessons while celebrating its miraculous possibilities.’
I can’t say that I would describe this as a YA novel or one children might fully comprehend, but I can say that it is fantastic. It’s incredibly literary, with beauty in every single word chosen and a haunting lyrical effect. There were so many passages I wanted to take a note of, so many quotations I could pick out that were unique and utterly stunning. The plot is so mysterious, but by the end the mystery has barely changed. You’re left to take away from the book whatever you want, confused and questioning it all which I think is a brilliant reflection on how the characters must also feel. I would love to discuss the book with other readers, because I think everyone would react differently and I’d love to hear their feelings on what the book means and who the Swallow Man is, because it leaves so much room for interpretation and imagination.
There are passages where you start to suspect the Swallow Man who does have a darker side and you wonder whether he can be trusted, in fact, try describing the plot without it sounding sinister and creepy – a seven year old girl taken out into the wilderness by an unnamed stranger immediately raises suspicions. Their relationship and their friendship is so delicately narrated; the Swallow Man’s wisdom and Anna’s naivety are a devastating juxtaposition to the horror of their surroundings and their own personal suffering which we see through the book. In that way it reminded me so much of The Book Thief, such a fantastic and exquisite story set against a backdrop of death, danger and sadness. The magical realism is just a subtle flavour in the book, one that is perfectly handled, feeling realistic and unforced.
Having read the book, I’d say younger readers may struggle. It’s incredibly thought provoking, but in doing so, it’s also a little confusing. I found myself re-reading pages, wondering what bits meant and still feeling a little lost at the end. I think it’s the point of the book, to raise those questions, to present the horror of the time through such an interesting, obscure way that hasn’t been done before. Comparisons to The Book Thief and John Boyne are justified in the fact that this book is an unforgettable representation of World War Two, but it’s in its own league with its new take on the people of the time, it’s unique characters, points of view and, most significantly, Gavriel Savit’s writing.
Gavriel Savit really is an artist, a craftsman of words and I would love to read anything of his in the future. Prepared to be left unsatisfied if you’re expecting a plot-driven, black-and-white, wartime story. Instead, you will receive a painfully heart-wrenching, thoughtfully grey book which is lyrically woven together with depth, enigmatic characters and subtle hints of underlying truth. Their journey is realistic, with moments of happiness, questions, fear, sheer sorrow and some understanding until you are lost amongst the emotions and the words which have been used to create such a touching novel.