“Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit

Toward the end of last year, I requested this book from the publisher because the summary sounded interesting. What do they mean by a man who can speak to birds? I was curious and thought that I’d get a wonderful, fantastical tale. What I got instead was a profound story that hints at magical realism and focuses on a girl growing up in the midst of World War II with only a mysterious man to protect her.

Quick summary:

The story begins when Anna is seven living in Poland with her father, a linguistics professor. Due to her father’s influence, Anna is well versed in several languages at that age. Anna loves her father and spends much of her time with him and visiting his friends. One day, her father does not return from work and Anna finds herself alone on the street when she meets a most unusual man, who she calls the Swallow Man because he can speak to the birds.

The Swallow Man cares for Anna and protects her from the war that surrounds them. They spend much of the war walking in forests, only visiting towns and speaking to others when they need to. The Swallow Man also has a knack for languages like Anna, and is skilled at blending in with whomever he is around, a skill he teaches Anna to help them survive the war. He tries to preserve her innocence for as long as he can, but he can’t shield her from everything. And as the war continues and the Swallow Man begins to change, it falls to Anna to protect and provide for them both.

My thoughts:

“Little girls tend to humanize great men.”

I held out on writing my thoughts on this book because of how much the story affected me by its end. The story is short, but you spend a lot of time with the characters so leaving them seem like abandoning a family member.

I really like the story. I love the voice it’s told in though at times I thought it got a bit preachy. It’s told using an omniscient narrator and though the voice is that of an adult, we still get a sense of how Anna views the world, which is refreshing in its innocence. But we also see how fragile the situation is for the Swallow Man to protect Anna from the war when surrounded by mounds of bodies and the booming of bombs.

It’s a well-written story and it’s descriptive too, which I loved. It transports you to that time, but because much of the story is from Anna’s perspective, we do not feel afraid or anxious much of the time despite the story being set in the middle of a war. The Swallow Man, though mysterious, provides Anna with both security and comfort. Since the Swallow Man doesn’t use names because it makes it easier for people to find them, he refers to Anna as “Sweetie” and Anna refers to him as “Daddy.” The endearments, though useful in deceiving others, foretells how they will regard each other throughout the story.

For much of the story, Anna and the Swallow Man walk from one location to another. One wonders at the state of their feet because they walk for many years, until Anna is in her near teens, in fact. They take breaks but still, all their travel is on foot. Despite being in the middle of a war and travelling on foot in forests, not much happens to the pair because the Swallow Man is careful. However, I think this caused the story to drag a bit in the middle. I did not see that as a negative, however, because it matches what the characters are doing. It’s almost as if the pace slowed some to match the gait of the characters. When another character interrupts their walk, the pace takes off again.

The story’s pace also matches one of the many purposes of the story, which, at a base level is to show the development of a precocious young girl under the care of an unusual man during a dangerous time.  When the pace began to drag in the middle, I also thought it was done to allow Anna time to grow and to enjoy a bit of childhood fun with Reb Hirschl before it takes off again.

“The practice of lying is concerned with attempting to overlay a thin paper substitute atop the world that exists in order that it seem to suit your purposes. But the Swallow Man didn’t need the world to suit him. He could make himself suit whatever world it pleased him to agree existed.”

The story possesses some magical realism, which is seen in how Anna regards the Swallow Man. In Anna’s eyes, he is quite tall and can make himself seem taller when trying to intimidate others. Like a chameleon, he easily adapts to his surroundings and takes on the persona that complements those with whom he interacts. I thought that by the story’s end we would be told exactly who the Swallow Man is and where he came from, but though his devolution suggests a peek at who he really is and Anna’s sacrifice to restore him rendered him human, to being a simple man, I still feel as if I don’t know him. Who is he?

Spoiler section:

Who is the Swallow Man? I believe he is a scientists or an inventor of some kind. I believe he worked with radioactive material hence the tablets. But where is he from and where does he go at the end? I felt abandoned when he left Anna, as if he’s leaving me too. I was so stunned and sad that I took a break from the story before continuing on with the few pages to complete the story. That’s what held me back from writing this review. I didn’t want to revisit that moment when the Swallow Man leaves though I knew he would.

I was sad when he left but terrified when I watched him unravel. It made me wonder which of the personas is really him. I was scared for Anna as well as for both their safety. How would they ever make it without the Swallow Man? And then there’s the moment when Anna saves the Swallow Man and loses the last of her innocence in the process. I was sad at that part too but I expected something like that to happen. I thought it would be worse, actually.

Overall: ★★★★☆

Great story. I highly recommend it.

It’s descriptive and well-written. It’s both poignant and profound in its discussion of language and how the ways people communicate reveal how they navigate the world and survive in it. It’s basically a tale about a father and his daughter and his willingness to do anything to provide for and protect her. It’s touching, it’s compassionate and by its end, you’ll be left wanting to know more and wanting to hold on to the characters you’ve spent so much time, yet so little pages, with.

Quotes from the book:
  • “Men who try to understand the world without the help of children are like men who try to bake bread without the help of yeast.”
  • “People…are more confident in their decisions when they think they have changed their own minds.”
  • “Our weapons are knowledge and observation and patience and time, and given enough of those last two, our weapons will always prevail.”
  • “Regret is like golden jewelry: at the proper moment it may prove immeasurably valuable, but it is rarely wise to advertise its presence to strangers.”
  • “A word is a tiny moment of time devoted to the conjuring aloud of some small corner of what is.”
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8 thoughts on ““Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit

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  4. Wonderful review! I think this is one of those books where you can really love it or hate it. I’m glad we fall under the same group. I agree, the writing was descriptive and well written. And though not much happens, it’s a memorable story. It’s also interesting that half the time we know but sort of don’t know what really is going on. The touch of magical realism was superb. I really liked the relationship between Anna and the Swallow Man as well. ^.^ And thank you for sharing my review, Zezee!

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