by Gavriel Savit
On November 6th, 1939, Anna's father leaves her in the care of a friend. He's only meant to be gone for a few hours, but he never returns for her. The man entrusted with her proves unwilling to keep her for more than a day, so seven-year-old Anna is thrown to the streets of Krakow to survive on her own. A mysterious person Anna knows only as the Swallow Man becomes her savior. Knowledgeable and clever, but shrouded in secrets, he takes the girl under his wing and leads her to a new life lived on the road and in the shadows as conflict and war escalate around them.
I loved this book. It was so beautiful and so haunting that I couldn't tear myself away for even a moment. The best way that I know to describe it is this way: before I picked up Anna and the Swallow Man, I was not interested in another World War II novel. There have been so many in the past few years that have been “must reads” that I just couldn't take yet another story set in that era. I was over it. But within the first few pages I was drawn into Anna's unsettled, disturbing life and I was hooked.
The Swallow Man is an absolutely fascinating character. Seen through the eyes of Anna, he's slightly terrifying. Although she loves him and trusts him absolutely, she never completely loses her fear of him. He's difficult to grasp, as shifting as the shadows cast by a flickering candle, refusing to give up any clues to his identity or his past. Yet he's also a mentor, a father figure who encourages Anna to ask questions and patiently answers them. When he refuses to answer, he explains why he will not. I always want to know more – who is this Swallow Man? Where did he come from? Why does he live as he does? Little drips of information leak through his facade of deception, but they only lead to greater curiosity. Anna is the perfect observer, soaking up the Swallow Man's philosophy like a sponge. The wide-eyed wonder of early chapters matures as Anna grows up. The inner strength that she has cultivated over the years shines in the heartbreaking final third of the book.
The writing in the book is simply amazing. The words are so beautiful and lyrical, yet very subtle and precise. The atmosphere created is uncertain, reality always shifting. At times the Swallow Man seems unreal, a sort of trickster or magical creature sent to protect Anna. In other scenes he's undeniably real and terrestrial. Sometimes the book reads like an ethereal dream; at other times, a scathing nightmare. Always, the prose is elegant, lean, and arresting.
It's quite early to declare a favorite book of the year, but this may be a very strong contender. I can't believe that this is the author's debut novel. Anna and the Swallow Man is too good to be his first! I can't recommend it enough. I want everyone to read it and love it as much as I do.
5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2015: New Releases This Week: January 27th, 2015
2014: The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog (Amelia Peabody #7) by Elizabeth Peters
2013: Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins
2012: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
2011: Sidebar: Review Status for Books
2010: Happy Café Vol. 1 by Kou Matsuzuki
2009: Contest #6: A Tale of Romance for Valentine’s Day