Sunday, 28 January 2018

Review: 'Swansong' by Kerry Andrew

I only spent a year in Scotland but I fell in love with its rugged charm and haunting nature. Ever since that year I have been looking for more books set in Scotland, especially because I adore its folk takes and culture. So a folk song adaptation set in the Scottish Highlands? Count me in! Swansong looked to be right up my street so of course I had to check it out. Thanks to Jonathan Cape and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/01/2018
Publisher: Vintage; Jonathan Cape
In this stunningly assured, immersive and vividly atmospheric first novel, a young woman comes face-to-face with the volatile, haunted wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. 
Polly Vaughan is trying to escape the ravaging guilt of a disturbing incident in London by heading north to the Scottish Highlands. As soon as she arrives, this spirited, funny, alert young woman goes looking for drink, drugs and sex – finding them all quickly, and unsatisfactorily, with the barman in the only pub. She also finds a fresh kind of fear, alone in this eerie, myth-drenched landscape. Increasingly prone to visions or visitations – floating white shapes in the waters of the loch or in the woods – she is terrified and fascinated by a man she came across in the forest on her first evening, apparently tearing apart a bird. Who is this strange loner? And what is his sinister secret? 
Kerry Andrew is a fresh new voice in British fiction; one that comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting.
I'm a big fan of Magical Realism, it is one of my favourite genres. When done well, it can lift an "ordinary" story into the extraordinary, adding beautiful touches that explain the inexplicable. Human life, especially our interior, mental life, is incredibly complex and confusing and it is difficult to encompass that in a straightforward narrative. By weaving magic into their stories, authors are able to explain things that otherwise they could not. Swansong does this, bringing metaphors and folktales to the story of a lost young woman. My eye was immediately drawn by Andrew's use of folk song and mythologies as inspirations for her book. Rife with history and culture, these folk songs, despite their age, still ring true in some way, strike a chord that can't be quieted. Just for this I find it worthwhile reading Magical Realism, to find new words to describe my thoughts, new images in which to capture my feelings. Swansong, with its dark and haunting imagery, does just that.

Swansong is quite a complicated read at times. The novel is a mix between a coming-of-age novel, a mystery thriller and magical realism. On the one hand Andrew's novel is grounded in the relatively realistic troubles of young Polly Vaughan whose life is slowly unravelling, but on the other hand Swansong soars above that, mixing the magical with the realist. Polly is not always a likeable character. Actually, most of the time you want to shake her and tell her to pull herself together. But then I remember myself at university, how terrifying it can be to suddenly have to stand on your own two feet, to deal with all the consequences of stupid actions and to push through it all somehow. So although you can't always empathise with Polly, you can understand her. Polly is just as in the dark as the reader, arriving in a completely different environment where things have been brewing under the surface for a while. As she slowly loses herself in the woods the question becomes, who will she be when she emerges?

Part of what intrigued me about Swansong was Kerry Andrew's writing. Initially I struggled getting into the mood of the novel, as Polly's narration is quite choppy. Her thoughts are quick and jumbled, she is panicking and stressing, torn between regretting the past and trying to forget it. Once I got into it, however, it really started working for me. Thanks to the writing you really get into the main character's head and it contrasted beautifully to the more magical and lyrical moments in the novel. One of the best things about this novel are Andrew's beautiful descriptions of the Scottish Highlands. Having been there, Swansong felt a little bit like a return to that landscape. Andrew takes you on a journey through a ravaged young woman's mind and although it isn't always comfortable or understandable, you do end up caring for her. Aside from her story, an ancient 'whodunnit' mystery pops up, adding to Polly's desire for answers and fear of the past. At time it almost feels like too much, but Andrew manages to strike a good balance.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I struggled with Swansong at times, something about Andrew's novel gripped me. Andrew allows you to sink away into her landscape and the drama she creates, until it becomes almost too much. I'd recommend it to those who enjoy Magical Realism and Suspense.

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