Synopsis: 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.
Review: 4/5 stars (I think)
I genuinely love historical fiction. It’s my favorite genre, and it’s often criminally underrated. Sure, sometimes it can be awfully dry, but many of the realest and most beautiful characters I have ever encountered spring from these books. The Help and The Poisonwood Bible are amongst the small number of works that have made me cry. Yet the most exquisite works of historical fiction often take place in the 1930s and 1940s. It often seems as though the genre must be half-filled with these decades exclusively. The Nightingale, All the Light We Cannot See, The World to Come, The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, Salt to the Sea, Wolf by Wolf and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet have all received near-perfect ratings from me for one shared reason: despite the commonness of this era reaching practically to cliché, these books all set themselves apart somehow.
Anna and the Swallow Man often fails to do that.
Its writing is absolutely beautiful, its characters memorable if unrealistic, but it is typically unable to find a unique way to cover its topic. The characters, who spend the early 1940s wandering Poland and western Russia, are rarely even reminded of the war; and in turn, neither is the reader. Anna and the Swallow Man find food consistently, relying on the kindness of others. The nearest they come to a close call with a soldier is once playing dead. The story lacks the sharp, sad suspense of a wartime setting. So while I desperately hope I will read more from Gavriel Savit, I unfortunately cannot give this book the 5-star rating I so wanted to.
All that being said, this book is terribly lovely (in both senses of the phrase), and though it isn’t sharp and sad as a wartime narrative is supposed to be, it inspires this feeling in its own way.
Bottom line: I really recommend this.