Title: Anna and the Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Date of Publication: January 26, 2016
Source: copy from Penguin Random House International
Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Łania 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.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
First line: “When Anna Lania woke on the morning of the sixth of November in the year 1939 — her seventh — there were several things that she did not know.”
I’ve never been into historical novels but I wanted to change that so I took a chance with Anna and the Swallow Man, especially after I found myself curious about that blurb. Dare I say it but Anna and the Swallow Man feels like it’s destined to be a modern classic.
Despite the protagonist being a seven year-old, this book is not for middle graders. It is at least a young adult book and it’s actually more along the lines of commercial literary fiction. Gavriel Savit’s prose is stunning and its cadence is like a river, lulling you into its flow. The book is short but I felt like time was dilating while I read it, as if time slowed down. You can’t help but read carefully and appreciate every word. Anna and the Swallow Man is a novel that demands to be appreciated and not something to rush through with.
I thought for sure that being a WWII novel, I’d get blood and despair and desolation from Anna and the Swallow Man. But this book was far from that. At its core, it’s Anna’s coming-of-age story, with the war as the background. Anna lost her father when she was seven and now has the Swallow Man as her caretaker, who tries his best to keep them alive. She’s not his daughter but she might as well be. For years they spend walking and traveling and avoiding to be killed. Anna learns from the Swallow Man how to survive and a lot more too from his encyclopedic language.
What I loved best about Anna and the Swallow Man is its focus on language. Anna speaks a lot of languages as her father was a linguistics professor. And the Swallow Man does too. But they not only talk about actual languages in here but also languages between two people, how a language is indicative already of the bond and relationship between people.
We definitely witness Anna grow and mature. War changes people and it’s all too painfully obvious especially at the end how Anna ends up shedding her childhood when everything becomes too real and too near.
Obviously though, my favorite part of the novel is the most mysterious one and that is the Swallow Man. Who is he? I might never know fully and while I feel frustrated by that, that is also this book’s beauty. Anna doesn’t know, we don’t know. But we go along for the journey, as Anna does, because the Swallow Man is all we could count on. Because while he doesn’t speak as much and is reserved and terse and clipped in everything he does, he is safe. He loves Anna in his own way. He cares for her and he won’t let anything harm her. He might not be affectionate but it is what it is.
This is a book that we can mine endlessly for discussions and could even be required reading for schools. It’s chock full of symbolisms and I’m sure I will be reading it again in the future and that I will realize something new. Do read Anna and the Swallow Man if you’re in the mood for a coming-of-age story set during the World War II in Poland with an absolutely splendid prose. I highly recommend it.