Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
Published by Knopf on January 26, 2016
Genres: [Adult/YA] Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Format: Paperback, ARC
Rerated: 4 Stars
4.5 Stars, Completed December 31, 2015
– SPOILER free –
“I need a SparkNotes interpretation of this” was the first thought that popped into my head when I finished page 232.
Initially, I thought this was going to be a light historical fiction novel set during the early years of World War II (but then again when is a book about WWII every light?), but I’m quite surprised by how this read more like a fairy tale mixed with some magical realism. And strangely, as I was flipping through each page I had these sudden urges to recognize every rhetorical device and wanted to annotate the entire thing. Anna and the Swallow Man rekindled the literature student in me (in a pleasant way).
In Anna and the Swallow Man, readers meet young, precocious Anna. Her father is a linguistic professor and naturally he knows many languages. In fact, so many that Anna doesn’t know what her father’s native tongue is. She grows up not really knowing how to identify herself. All she has are the many ways to say Anna. Anja. Khannaleh. Anke. Anushka. Anouk. But then one day her father leaves her in the care of an old friend and he never returns. Soon after, with the war wearing down the civilians, the hospitality her father’s friend once has dissipates and she finds herself at a level of despair and fear she’s never anticipated to experience before. All changes when she meets the mysterious Swallow Man. Despite his intimidating looks, Anna grows attached to this tall and peculiar man because he’s just like her and her father, one that is skilled in many tongues. They embark on a seemingly aimless journey and he teaches her his language, Road. A language that uses deceit for the purpose of protection and survival.
In a rapid riot of conflicting languages, she answered all his questions.
In Yiddish she said, “I am better now,” and then in Russian, “I do not think my father will come back.” In German she said, “I am myself,” and then in Polish, “And now I am waiting for you.”
Aside from the deep messages the story presents, the writing is probably my favorite part of this book. The prose was quite unusual but very beautiful. It was not easy to read at times since Savit really enjoys expressing things implicitly through riddles and a lot of uncommon rhetoric, but almost every detail seemed to serve a purpose in the story. Most of the book was told in thoughts and long paragraphs; there was very seldom any dialogue. But the lengthy passages were appropriate for a story like this.
Savit has a compelling voice and great flow in his writing, but the story did drag with the first third of the book, which is the only reason why I’m deducting half a star. Like the premise suggests this band of vagrants walk for several years with no apparent goal (or so readers thought initially; we later gain more insight behind everything). But as more is explained and a certain character is introduced it picks up and becomes rather fast paced.
As for why I think this made me jump back to my high school literature days was the usage of different perspectives between our two consistent characters, Anna and the Swallow Man. Each offers an important view for a certain type of reader. The non literature student/ya loving bookworm in me instantly felt connected to Anna’s naivety, innocence, and her outlook of the consequences of war and her adventure with the Swallow Man. On the other hand, the adult and more experienced reader (and old literature student) in me could see both Anna’s and the messages behind the Swallow Man’s clever wit and insight. These two characters provided two very different perspectives, making this a read fit for readers of all ages.
All the characters were rather simply built but they possessed a depth behind their words and thoughts as the story progressed. It was hard to not grow attached to them.
And deep behind the story there’s also some subtle, hidden messages about humanity’s true nature. How the consequences of war can change someone so. Or motivate them to be who they are. There were lots of thought provoking concepts explored in this.
And why I began this review with my plea for a SparkNotes annotation of this story is because by the end there were still riddles and questions unanswered. The conclusion was cloaked in mysteriousness, and there was much left for the reader’s interpretation.
Even so, there’s no doubt that Savit is a marvelous story teller. Anna and the Swallow Man reminded me a mix between critically acclaimed works such as The Glass Castle, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Night. This was magical realism at its finest. I highly recommend this fabulous debut.
Quotes were taken from an uncorrected advance readers copy.
Special thanks to Knopf for allowing me to participate in this blog tour and sending me this review copy of Anna and the Swallow Man. In no way did this affect my reading experience or honest review.