Book Review: The Swan Book

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.


I wish i could touch and feel this cover. What amazing texture!

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.

Author Bio:


19 thoughts on “Book Review: The Swan Book

  1. Can I just say you express your lack of understanding eloquently? 😛 It’s good for me to read your review, because it gives me a good idea of what to expect. I don’t generally like not knowing, or feeling like I’m lost, but I think this is the kind of story that I’d be happy to let sweep me up, and just marinate in. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you😊 I am not comfortable with feeling lost either and I didn’t find a review before I read which could balance both the complexity of this book and its beauty. People were either raving about it or hating on it. Thought is should make it clear why that is. If you get it, you’ll love it. If you don’t, you’ll be frustrated and hate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this book would be too confusing, but I really like books like this! It sounds really challenging, but worth reading. Great review!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I like the description of your brain stretching to accommodate the unconventional nature of the narrative. This happened to me when I first read one of my favorite books, Bogeywoman, by Jaimy Gordon. The second time I read it I was a better reader and understood that it would be an unusualy read that would teach me what it wanted to communicate. Just think: how many books do you read each year? One year later, you are that many books a better reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you understood what I meant! It’s always nice when a book becomes a paradigm shift and forces us to mature.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh you, that is such a thoughtful rumunating post on how we grow as readers and people and how we attempt to grasp and accomodate new and difficult concepts! I would be so curious to hear if your thoughts about the book changed in one.or even five years! As it is this sounds definitely complex, perhaps incorporating aboriginal folklore unfamiliar to us? But who knows, I want to try but fear to try right now 😀 But if I do read the book I know I can vent about it to you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do try it! I don’t mean to be discouraging. It does seem steeped in indigenous culture, but also contains references to folklore from around the world. I caught a few references to Indian music. So basically yeah, lots here to unpack 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I will probably find it very difficult too, but also curious about what makes it difficult etc 😀 Heh yes maybe it’ll be taught in litcrit classes!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t go back to it just because of this review. Wouldn’t want you to have a reading experience you don’t enjoy 🙂


  5. Vijaya, you are such a beautiful writer. Thank you for being so honest about your challenges with this novel. I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit, though. Many people have expressed their negative experiences while reading this book. They’re obviously not as patient and thoughtful as you are!
    I want to read more reviews after the books release. I’m really curious about the discussion surrounding this novel. Perhaps, with time, more people will come to appreciate it. Or perhaps it’s just not a great a book?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Naz 😊 You are too kind! I went on goodreads and saw as many positive reviews as negatives, which is why I feel that I’ve probably missed something. I’m looking forward to reading more reviews too, especially from people who have a similar background as the author.


  6. Great review. I like experimenting with unconventional narratives. I recently read Mr. Fox and loved it alot. ANd God of small things is one of my fav reads. I do agree with you – if read at a wrong time the book would be a grave mistake. This book sounds interesting . However I am not sure that I would be as patient as you are

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you😊 Yeah, the book was not an easy read, but I wouldn’t want to discourage you from trying 😊


  7. Pingback: 10 Books In 10 Months – Exploring The Works Of Indigenous Writers | Read Diverse Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s