Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Anna and the Swallow Man is a stunning, literary, and wholly original debut novel that tells a new WW2 story.
Kraków, 1939, is no place to grow up. There are a million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. And Anna Lania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father and suddenly, she’s alone.
Then she meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall. And like Anna's missing father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced.
Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgement, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous . . .
I could not write this review immediately I had read this book, I had to take time to analyse the impact it had on me as well as review the writer's style, choice of material and ultimately the story itself.
Normally when I read and review a book I know how I feel about it; this book is different, it is so haunting and parts of it kept coming back to me when I least expected it, it made me 'feel' the characters and that for me is rare. I know that I will remember this story for a long time to come and it easily sits comfortably alongside the likes of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, furthermore I can see this being made into a film and in schools on their listed books to read on the curriculum.
It is a moving, sometimes almost hopeless journey of a small child and a stranger who travel across war torn Poland during the years of the conflict seen through the eyes of the child but written by an adult. Anna's father is a linguistics professor in Krakow who when he goes to work he leaves his daughter with one of his many friends around the city. This particular day he leaves Anna in the care of his Polish friend who is a pharmacist but he does not return. One has to assume that he has been taken by the Germans although what his fate is we never learn. When her father does not return the pharmacist abandons her, perhaps he is afraid of having a Jew in his house or being associated with one but whatever his reason he leaves this little 7 year old girl to fend for herself. It highlights for me the acute need for self preservation of people during the war and the fear for their own lives that made them behave in this way. Anna has been educated by her father in languages and like him she can speak Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish so when she meets the Swallow Man who can also speak many languages she feels sure her father must have sent him to her. I think you need to abandon all grown up thoughts of fear and reason to immerse yourself in the mind of a 7 year old who has no reason to fear anyone of her fathers' many friends who she is used to being left with and that she has complete faith in the fact that if her father has organised this it must be OK.
What follows is her blindly following this stranger who eventually leads her across Poland to safety. Their journey is one not only of Anna's growing up physically but of her 'education' along the way of emotional conflict, the loss of her childhood and the horrors of war mixed with wonders of magical folklore stories and her unequivocal belief that everything will be fine . Children have this innocence that in part shields them from reality making everything like an adventure or a game, with Anna's conviction that the Swallow Man is somehow magical backed up by his tales of folklore she is able to survive her ordeal remarkably well.
We don't really learn much about the complex character of the Swallow Man but the author hints that he had a daughter called Greta who we must assume was either killed or who died and perhaps this is the reason that he forms a bond with Anna. He doesn't show her any real affection although she knows he cares for her. Possibly he does not want to love her knowing one day he will have to let her go, perhaps it is too painful for him like loosing Greta all over again. To Anna he is like a magician, somehow he is able to make himself blend in wherever he goes, not attracting attention and he teaches her to be the same, he teaches her how to survive. When in the city they wear city clothes, when they are in the country they dress accordingly, never seeming to stand out, never memorable and thus they are able to make their way across Poland avoiding or charming the Germans and the Russians along the way.
Beautifully written this was often a difficult read in terms of subject matter and at times felt quite hopeless despite this there was an underlying feeling that Anna would survive. I felt the ending was unfinished on so many levels which opens up the possibility of a sequel. Often a book is read and forgotten quite quickly but I know that this story will stay with me for a very long time, it is impossible to read something so beautifully crafted without it making such an impact. I rarely give a novel a 5 star rating but have to do so for this captivating book. If you haven't read it then you must but don't expect to be entertained expect to be moved and you won't be disappointed.
I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.