Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit

It's 1939 and the world has become a dangerous place, something seven-year-old Anna is about to discover for herself. 

Anna's been fairly protected by her father all her life but a summons to the university leads to his capture by the Nazis. Anna isn't at all aware of what's happened, all she knows is that her father still hasn't returned after two days. She had been left under the watchful eye of the local pharmacist, but even he is unwilling to keep the girl beyond the first night. Fortunately for Anna, this series of events leads to her meeting the Swallow Man. A thin man who speaks almost as many languages as Anna and her father, the Swallow Man knows how to navigate this new and treacherous world. With Anna under his wing, they travel throughout the countryside making friends and avoiding enemies when possible. 

Anna and the Swallow Man is a strange little book. I've been trying to decide how to describe it and still haven't quite got it. It's set in Eastern Europe during WWII and is brilliantly written. Gavriel Savit's use of language is gorgeous and is just one of the more compelling aspects of the book. Some have compared it to The Book Thief, which is appropriate in terms of topic and setting sure even in terms of the narration as well - though Savit's tale is not narrated by death, the overall feel is similar. But the story in Anna and the Swallow Man is quite unlike The Book Thief in so many ways.

Anna is growing up during a time of great upheaval. She's young enough that she doesn't quite understand the severity of war or what's happening in Poland but she's old enough to know it's bad. She's old enough to realize her father won't be returning and that she needs someone to help her through this world. She's not quite old enough to know that The Swallow Man might not be the kindly father figure she believes him to be, though. The Swallow Man is her savior, but he's a bit of a danger as well.

Anna's journey is quite disturbing at times, though Savit doesn't get overly graphic or gory with his detail. Frankly it's almost a given that the story is going to be disturbing, though, considering it's about an orphaned girl wandering Poland during WWII.

As I mentioned, Savit's prose is wonderful and I love the way the he forces the reader to read between the lines at times. Again, the story gets quite bleak and disturbing and while it's mostly clear what's happening, there are times when the prose is quite lean and the reader is left to tease out the details themselves. The Swallow Man's identity is just one of these cases. There are hints, especially towards the end, but neither Anna or the reader ever really finds out who he is.

Anna and the Swallow Man is considered a middle grade release, I think, but I don't necessarily think it easily fits that category. Or better yet it certainly isn't limited to that category. Not only does the writing beg for a larger audience, it's the kind of book that will no doubt generate a lot of discussion making it an equally appropriate choice for the classroom and book clubs as well.

Anna and the Swallow Man is due out in January from Knopf.

No comments: