Gavriel Savit’s Anna and the Swallow Man is beautiful and lyrical and I just want everyone to read it!
Anna Lania is the precocious daughter of a linguistics professor in Poland. The novel begins in 1939, her seventh year, with the German occupiers imprisoning her father along with most other Polish professors and intellectuals (those most likely to dissent). But Anna doesn’t know that – she only knows that she is alone and the world without her father, this world at war, does not seem safe for a girl alone. He father’s friends are all either gone, too scared, or just unwilling to help. And then she meets the Swallow Man, as alone and untethered as she is. The two of them live out the next few years of their lives together hiding in the forests of Eastern Europe, working to stay away from the war, and looking for an elusive bird that the Swallow Man fears has been lost forever.
I was surprised and moved by the language of this novel. There is a scene early on in which Anna describes the many languages she and her father speak. Each of them is connected to a person and experience in her life to the point that “every word of Armenian smelled like coffee” because of the many coffees she and her father shared with their Armenian neighbor. This statement says so much to me; it speaks to language as a social construct that we take for granted – one that factors hugely into who we are individually but also defines our humanity. No other animals speak, even the birds that sing.
Anna and the Swallow Man has received many favorable comparisons to Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. I will add to that chorus. In the way that Zusak used Death as a narrator to add a heightened level of humanity to a story of a time that was lacking the basic tenants thereof, Savit uses language. German soldiers are Wolves, Russians are Bears, Anna and her Swallow Man share a language called Road. In Road there are no names and you cannot tell a lie in Road. Road is the way that the Swallow Man protects Anna throughout the war. It is both as harsh and as kind as you can imagine it being. In defining themselves by Road the characters allow themselves to maintain their humanity while having to perform acts that would strip them of it under normal circumstances. It is the language of War and to survive that it was necessary to create Road.
This is absolutely a novel to be discussed and I hope it finds its way into the hands of many readers, teachers, and book clubs – I know I will be enthusiastically placing it into quite a few.
A New York Times Bestseller
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year
A Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
Winner of the Indies Choice Book Award
Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award
The extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture, Markus Zusak's unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul.It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.