I remember the first time I read The God of Small Things. I was probably 12/13 years old, not quite old enough for a book of that calibre. My parents were never the sort of people who said no to any book I wanted to read,it had just won a Booker, and it was accessible. So I read it.
And I hated it.
A few years later, as more socially aware young adult studying literature, I read the book again. This time, I was blown away by how clever it was.
There are a couple reasons for this gap. The first, of course, is that when I first read it I was too immature –it was too heavy and too complex a book for a girl barely in her teens. The second is the unfamiliarity of the subject matter. As a pre-internet child (I would get the Internet at home only a couple of years later), the range of things I knew about was limited by the walls of my house and school. The book, even though it spoke about my home state, spoke of it in a way that I did not recognize. The plot and themes were all a bit too much. Both in form and in content, this book was beyond me.
And now, once again, I’ve run into a book that is truly and completely beyond me. I won’t even pretend to be able to judge The Swan Book. I will only say that reading it has been an ego-crushing, but necessary education.
A girl, is found by a woman named, Bella Donna of the Champions, hiding inside a tree. Bella Donna is a refugee from some climate change wars, and now lives in a swamp inside an abandoned ship. The girl, who is mute and does not remember her name, has been gang-raped. Bella Donna takes in the girl, names her Oblivia Ethylene, and tells her stories about swans. The swamp itself is a refugee camp/colony for indigenous Australians, and is filled with a flock of black swans. Meanwhile, a promising young indigenous Australian boy, Warren Finch is being groomed for great things. He has been told that this girl is his promised wife. When he becomes the first Aboriginal President of Australia, he comes to the swamp and takes away Oblivia. She marries him reluctantly, and he too soon realizes that she may not be the woman for him. He leaves her in a tower/palace and leaves to fulfill his Presidential duties, while she rescues injured swans.
Aside from these characters there are also The Harbor Master and his singing monkey, Rigoletto; three genies who are Warren’s bodyguards; and a man/robot named Machine-Warren’s housekeeper.
Any errors in the above description are a result of my lack of understanding.
As I described to Naz, earlier, the book is like a poem that you don’t quite “get”, but which you know is beautiful. I get the aesthetics in the book, I don’t quite get its soul. It is mystifying and complex, full of references and allegories I am sure I haven’t completely understood. But all of that is beautifully written.
It is undoubtedly literary. It is challenging. It questions and leaves you hanging for the answers.
When I began, I had a sense of drowning. It was frustrating to not understand, to be left so unmoored. I contemplated abandoning it. I am glad I didn’t. As I read more, my brain seemed to shift and stretch to accommodate its unconventionality.
For those who attempt to read this book and find themselves floudering, as I did, I can offer only this: Read further only if you can be patient and slow. Otherwise stop now. Do not wait for the “actual story” to begin, because you will realize too late that it already has. Read slowly and savour. Have patience. There is a rhythm to this book that will reveal itself eventually. Till then, just read.
This book pulled me out of my comfort zone as a reader. I have not read so alertly for a long time! For that, this book has my thanks. I read somewhere recently that a classic is a book that hasn’t finished saying what it wants to say. I am sure that The Swan Book and I need to talk, sometime in the future when I am older and wiser!
The Swan Book, published by Atria Books, is forthcoming on June 28th 2016.
FTC disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.