After fifty pages this book was in danger of becoming one of my top ten favorite books of all time. The writing is fantastic. Dreamlike, complicated, insightful. Many of the observations–through the eyes of a young girl in the middle of WWII–shine a light into the depths of the human soul. I think that’s the ultimate job of a writer, and Savit does this with a masterful touch.
The book navigates the survival of a young girl who loses her father to the war and a tall stranger she deems the Swallow Man. The Swallow Man has an agenda outside of Anna’s knowledge, and therefore outside of the reader’s knowledge, so for most of the book we are following the two of them as they wander (aimlessly?) around Poland and Russia. Because the point of view is that of a child, there’s this sort of immersion into magical realism. Thanks to the Swallow Man, Anna is kept far outside the war, even though she is in the middle of it. It reminded me (and other reviewers) of Life is Beautiful, the way the father protects his son from the true horror of their situation.
The beating heart of this book lies not with plot, as there is little, but with character and theme, which makes it more literary than mainstream. Halfway through I had to look at the spine to verify it was indeed classified as Young Adult (which it was) because it is so different than other YA books out there. Dialogue is sparse, there is no love interest, the themes are deep and the ending leaves things unfinished. Maybe the classification is due to the age of the protagonist, or maybe it was a lunge at making sales among a certain audience. Either way, I don’t imagine a middle grader making sense of something so complex.
I felt the ending was a bit rushed and out of character, which is why the rating lost a star. After developing such a lush relationship between Anna and her Swallow Man, we see this relationship start to splinter and head in a strange direction. At this point I felt the book was going the more fantastical route, but what happened instead was confusing and left me unsatisfied. I don’t mind being unsatisfied, as it keeps my brain turning well after the last page, but I guess I wanted more closure.
Maybe Savit intended to leave his readers feeling that way, because it reinforces that theme of constant wandering. Regardless, this book will stay with me for a long time.