Today, we're reviewing the extremely intriguing Anna and the Swallow Man, which is coming out in January from Random House.
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Expected publication: January 28th 2016 by Bodley Head (first published January 12th 2016)
Format read: ARC via Publisher
Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Lania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She’s alone.
And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.
The Swallow Man is not Anna’s father—she knows that very well—but she also knows that, like her father, he’s in danger of being taken, and like her 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. She follows him into the wilderness.
Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgment, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man.
Destined to become a classic, Gavriel Savit’s stunning debut reveals life’s hardest lessons while celebrating its miraculous possibilities.
Anna first meets the Swallow Man in the days after losing her professor father, and immediately sees him as a replacement adult-figure. Throughout the years of WWII, Anna and the Swallow Man travel in the wilderness of Europe, trying just to survive. Along the way, they push themselves to their limits, while also trying to retain some sense of normalcy...
There are many notable aspects of Anna and the Swallow Man, but first and foremost is Savit's unique writing style. The book opens with a third person omniscent acknowledgement, and throughout the book, Savit sprinkles acknowledgements that foretell Anna's life, in moments that alternate between being reassuring and occasionally worrying.
Though it's occasionally jarring at times to have these omniscent looks into Anna's life, it's also a sobering, eye-opening reminder that war is something that is often out of a person's control, and it's the human interactions that are in one's control. This plays nicely into the book's central theme, that as harrowing as a life lived on the run can be, it's human interactions that keep us tethered to the world-at-large.
As strange as Anna's relationship is with the Swallow Man, they have each other to depend on - something that comes up again, and again, when they are challenged on the road. Similarly, they make a friend on the road that reminds them to find a bit of joy in each day, even as they are routinely faced with destrution and death. It's these reminders that also help them cope with extraordinary challenges, including several instances in which Anna and the Swallow Man are forced to reach out to potential enemies, to continue.
Of special note: While the book is definitely geared toward the middle-grade crowd, parents and educators should be aware that there are instances of subtle sexuality throughout the book. Anna is put into positions where men either objectify because of her sex, or she's forced to use her sex to acheive her end means.
(This is made all the more acute, with the fact that Anna really only has interactions with men throughout the book - which as Kirkus says, are stand-in/replacement father figures.)
It's difficult to read at times, and even I felt strongly uncomfortable while reading. However, I do think that these scenes may open up the opportunity for important dialogue on the perils of warfare, and the individual will associated with survival.
Bottom line: Anna and the Swallow Man is an unusual, surprisingly, and ultimately thought-provoking novel. Gabriel Savit shows the long-term, soul-altering toll that prolonged warfare can take on two very different individuals, and how it's through their connection with each other, that they are able to save their humanity and each other.