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Anna and the Swallow Man
Anna and the Swallow Man, Gavriel Savit
Knopf, January 2016
Reviewed from ARC
For the first posted coverage of the season, I thought I’d start with one of the earliest publication dates on our list. Anna and the Swallow Man came out in January. It had huge pre-publication push; we received at least 4 copies just to the school Joy and I work at, at least one of which was in a lovely paper slip cover. And it picked up three stars out of the gate (HB, The Bulletin, and PW): not a bad opening to the year. So does it live up to the hype or the buzz?
This is a beautiful, haunting book. It reads almost like a fable, but about terrible true things — like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief (with whom this shares an editor), this is a book that uses lovely, quiet language and deceptively simple observations of human nature to skirt around the edges of horror and examine how war, here World War II in Eastern Europe, changes people.
I didn’t start with that understanding — it actually took me two tries to read this, slight as it is. Initially I read maybe 10%. My Goodreads review, dated in April, reads: “This was slow and inconsistent in [its] use of anachronistic language. Got bored, gave up.” Needless to say, I really didn’t think this would make our list, but there were stars, and so many words of praise on all that promotional material, and people I trust saying nice things. So I tried again, last week, and while it wasn’t one of those books I gulped down, once I pushed through I could definitely see why it has fans and — more to the point — why it should be a contenda.
Which is not to say that this is without flaws, chief among them those strange language choices that irritated me deeply. In fairness, “irritated” implies emotional, and it’s not called The Michael L. Printz Award for Books that Didn’t Irritate the Committee Too Much (although, actually, can we talk about what it means that this is ultimately a consensus award?). But my response is emotional because here is this poetic text — and it is poetic; there’s a lot of deliberation behind the word choices and the cadence and that distanced second-person narrative. There are sentences that just plain sing, sentences that seem simple at first glance but have rhythm, imagery, and balance to spare: “In fact, for much of her life with him, Anna had thought that each of the languages her father spoke had been tailored, like a bespoke suit of clothes, to the individual person with whom he conversed.” Or “His entire existence was like a giant, silent forefinger raised to the lips of the universe.” Beautiful, in sentiment and word!
But then too there are moments of dissonance: the repeated use of the colloquial, casual “OK” in a text that is otherwise formal and a little old fashioned and narrated in language so stripped of timely embellishments that it seems almost outside of time; the choice to use “daddiness” as the description of the characteristic Anna recognizes in the Swallow Man — why not “Papa-ness”, in keeping with the language Anna actually uses in-text, or “fatherliness”, to maintain that sense of no time/all time? Or the puns; there is very little here by way of dialogue, but Reb Hirshl’s terrible toad pun, a specifically English play on words, is written as dialogue, reminding the reader that this is an English text about speakers of so many languages that are not English. And of course there are the moments when all the lovely language practically chokes itself, spinning out sentences that require a second read to fully parse.
This is, as I’ve probably made clear, a text deeply concerned with layers of language and meaning, so I assume none of these moments that jumped and out and, in my reading, disrupted the narrative flow, were accidental. But they left me baffled; if every word has a meaning, what is the reader meant to take from moments that seem to push against the meaning and mood evoked through all the other linguistic choices? And that’s really the rub, when I look at these flaws — they stand out against the text because the text is so rich; Anna and the Swallow Man are multi-lingual, a fact that stands at the center of their experience; they share a tongue that is no-tongue, a linguistic adaptability that belongs to an educated, academic Poland that has been decimated. The languages of metaphor, lies, and survival (“Road”) all rub up against the languages of peoples being subsumed by the Nazis, and these two characters speak all of the languages and therefore for all of the disappeared. Anna speaks Polish, German, Russian, French and English well; Yiddish and Ukrainian passably, and even some Armenian and Carpathian Romany. She speaks all the tongues of the war, and uses that facility to survive. The narrative voice, meanwhile, has a poised, old-fashioned quality that makes it seem reasonable that the text could be translated into any of the mentioned languages with relative ease, except for those dissonant moments of puns and casual, linguistically modern usage.
Any conversation about this as a true contenda will, I believe, revolve around the language. The plot is almost non-existent; Anna is a nearly blank slate of wonder on which the world — the Swallow Man, Reb Hirshl, the Peddler and the Pharmacist, and of course the war itself — inscribes a character of loveliness in the darkness; she’s as much parable as person. (Side note: as I write this, I realize that every figure that acts or even exists in this text other than Anna is a male, and sees her either as a child or a sexual creature to be possessed, and now I think there’s an entire other exploration to be had about this text and whether Anna as innocence and female is a commentary on war or a reductive read of gender. Good thing we have the comments…) The Swallow Man is a bit more fascinating (although, I have some questions about his illness. Radiation poisoning, as seems implied by his importance and the snatches Anna overhears when he bargains himself for her freedom? Or hyperthyroidism, as seems indicated by his physical and mental decline when he runs out of pills?), but he is still more cipher than character, and Reb Hirshl is archetype through and through, a sort of Friar Tuck figure of cheer and booze to leaven the darkness, inevitably killed once he’s served his moral purpose. That the characters are flat and the plot nonexistent is not (necessarily) a flaw; again, I do not doubt that these are deliberate choices. But in the end the voice and the language are what will make or break this.
So, to close, my imaginary nomination statement: For the language alone, this should be considered. It’s a poetic, almost fairy tale- or fable-like slice of World War II, written with an uncanny precision. It’s more all ages than traditionally YA, with chapter header illustrations that evoke a younger read and content that is clearly older; like the characters, balanced between the Russians and the Germans, this is poised between YA and middle grade. Well worth discussing.
Ok, shadow committee at large, I’ve give my two cents and the floor is open for yours.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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