In 1939, Anna’s father, a linguistics professor, is taken by the Germans. At age seven, she is left alone. That is, until she meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, tall, strange, skilled in deception and capable of speaking the language of birds. He allows Anna to follow him through the wilderness. With two armies, bombs, and gunfire all around them, Anna must learn to speak the language of the Road. But with the world going mad, even the Swallow man may be a danger.
I’ll admit that Gavriel Savit’s writing lulled me at times – but I don’t mean that in a bad way, it simply had a calming effect on me despite the not-so-calming subject matter (the novel is perhaps not the best to read in the early hours of the morning).
The novel itself is captivating and poignant. The story captures the dangers of growing up in a world being torn apart by war and explores the meaning of truth and life amidst death and destruction. Savit’s writing is mesmerizing and unusual, much like the Swallow Man himself.
I hesitate to put this novel into a specific genre. Of course it has historical elements, but magic realism plays a key role in the plot and in the characterization of the Swallow Man, and there are certainly aspects of fairy tale as well. Of particular interest are the elements of philosophy to be found in Anna’s attempts to understand the line between telling the truth and lying and in the debates that arise as a result of the Swallow Man’s rules of survival. I’d have to agree with the editor, Erin Clarke, that Anna and the Swallow Man is, in many ways, like Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.
The narration is interesting. It is omniscient, which is helpful for providing historical context and for grounding some of the more fantastic elements, but it also delves into Anna’s thoughts and feelings, putting readers in her situation and making the Swallow Man even more mysterious (and threatening at times).
Ultimately, I found it to be a story masterfully told.
Final verdict: Anna and the Swallow Man is a unique novel with some especially vivid and memorable scenes that are likely to stick with you. At around 200 pages, it’s a quick read.