I was so excited when I started reading Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit. I found a book that stood above the typical popular book of the day. To be sure this isn’t your typical “New York Times Best Seller” kind of book. It’s far too unique in how it treats or approaches its subject, and the sheer beauty of his writing style is far above the usual “appeal to the masses” gripping plot line. Having said this Anna and the Swallow Man was a compelling read and as much a page turner as I have ever read.
The foundation of the story is unique to my reading. There is a seven year old girl who speaks seven languages. After her father disappears (this is World War 2 Poland and her father is highly educated) she takes up with a man who speaks five languages as well as “swallow” (the feathered variety). This man is intent on not being discovered by . . . whomever (it’s never really clear) . . . and will not even tell Anna his name. He is never anything more than the Swallow Man. He even goes as far as to take her name from her to help in the smoke screen they lay around their lives.
The constant threat of discovery adds a constant suspense to the storyline. Death could come by bullet or by starvation. But Swallow Man is good at what he doesâ€”survival. In spite of the scenes of war and death Savit writes with a delicacy that surprised and impressed me. For most of the book there was no “slap you in face” kinds of scenes that tear you apart in spite of the many opportunities. Oh, the scenes are tough enough for those with imagination, but there is a sensibility there that impressed me. In a book of war, death, and survival how can you not take notice of lines like:
All she knew was that out there, in a place in the woods near Lublin, there was a beautiful man to whom she wanted to give the taste of bread one final time before he died.
When she saw this, something fell into place inside of Anna. Ever since the onslaught of the Germans had begun, even by the side of Reb Hirschl, she had managed to forget completely that there had ever been such a thing as gladness. But here in front of her was indisputable evidence that the world was not everywhere on fire, and was, in fact, growing kinder in places– the Swallow Man had ventured out to forage not for food, not for gain, not for his benefit or for Anna’s, but only for the surprise and delight of her beautiful Reb Hirschl.
I had such hopes for this book. I touted its merits up until the night I read the final three chapters. I excitedly told my kids all about it on the way to my daughter’s Nutcracker Ballet rehearsal. While there I read the final chapters. On the way home I had nothing to say. The wind was taken from my sail. The romance with the book was over.
As you can surmise the ending is not a happy one. That fact has nothing to do with my disaffection with the book. I’ve read and appreciated books like Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Hamlet, and so many others that don’t leave a person smiling. So what is different about Anna and the Swallow Man? I think it’s that he left the ugly things for the very end after giving me such hope. At the end the book clearly falls into a “loss of innocence” story. That, by itself, is fine. It’s been done successfully so many times before and will be again. In this book it struck me as being done wrong.
After such beautiful writing three things happen at the end that hit me like a sucker punch in the kidney. I’m not sure if I felt purposefully betrayed by the author or if he just couldn’t think of anything better than slapping me in the face and then saying, “I see by the shock on your face that I have written a good book.” I never mistake “shock” for “moving and meaningful.” I don’t mind that the ugly things happened in the book; it’s just that they sit at the end like a heart attack at the end of your birthday party. The balance is all wrong.
I thought I was reading a contemporary book that was above so many others that are touted today as “best sellers” but in the end Savit brought this book down to the level of most others. I know that endings are difficult to get right. Savit missed it.