They Came like Swallows proved to be another beautiful novella for #NovellaNovember which has been so brilliantly hosted by Poppypeacockpens. This was my first William Maxwell book, of which I have heard only good things, and have been anxious to discover for myself. I bought this and So Long See You Tomorrow, a few months ago – lovely editions from Vintage, but there was something about the title of this one that made me read it first.
Over the course of #NovellaNovember I think a lot of bloggers and readers have been sitting back and trying to pin down what it is about a novella that can make it so powerful. There is of course an economy of language which I think suggests that every word is considered, there is an intensity of feeling which perhaps some longer novels lack.
I wonder whether I could say too much about They Came like Swallows – I think there is an inevitability to certain events that the reader expects from the very first page, in a sense I don’t think there are any surprises or shocks. If you happen to be reading this novella currently however, perhaps you better not read any further than this until you are finished.
Illinois 1918 and Elizabeth Morison is an ordinary middle class wife and mother – a wife and mother like so many others, but of course, like every other wife and mother she is the centre of her family’s life. How could life ever possibly go on without her in it? Bunny, Elizabeth’s eight year old son, adores his mother; she is the sun in his small universe.
“He got down from his chair at once. But while he stood waiting before her and while she considered him with eyes that were perplexed and brown, the weight grew. The weight grew and became like a stone. He had to lift it each time that he took a breath.
‘whose angel child are you?’
By those words and by the wholly unexpected kiss that accompanied them he was made sound and strong. His eyes met hers safely. With wings beating above him and a great masculine noise of trumpets and drums he returned to his breakfast.”
Bunny’s older brother, thirteen year old Robert, feels protective of his mother. Robert has an artificial leg – the result of an accident, his ‘affliction’ which the boy is always trying to make the world forget exists. He plays sport and bicycles with the other rough boys who sometimes tease Bunny. James Morison’s world is anchored by his wife – without whom a future existence would be unimaginable.
“Satin and lace and brown velvet and the faint odor of violets. That was all which was left to him of his love.”
As the novella begins, the news of the end of hostilities in Europe is being celebrated – but the Spanish Flu is already sweeping the world, bringing fear and bereavement to communities just like that of the Morison’s. Elizabeth’s sister Irene is a frequent visitor and big favourite with the children and during dinner Bunny is desperate to tell his mother about what happened to Arthur Cook at school – but just doesn’t get chance.
Maxwell’s portrait of a loving family is both warmly engaging and deeply moving. Maxwell puts us right into the heart of this family – we feel their relationships to one another. Maxwell is particularly good at portraying childhood – understanding the everyday anxieties of children, the small battles of siblings over toy boats or precious soldier figures. This child world is wholly convincing; the view of one brother for the other, the bafflements and unspoken worries of a boy so wanting to impress his father. Elizabeth is expecting her third child, an idea which comes as a slight shock to Robert and Bunny, as they watch their mother calmly hemming nappies.
When Bunny falls ill with flu, Elizabeth is ordered to keep out of his room, Robert feels it his duty to keep an eye on his mother. He is unimpressed when his mother suddenly curtails his freedom so he isn’t running all around town potentially taking Bunny’s flu germs with him. A punishment well deserved Robert feels for not having done his job properly, his small secret fear, he watches his mother anxiously.
They came like Swallows is a gorgeously nuanced little novella, there is a heartrending tension in the story of this family, told in three sections, through the loving eyes of Bunny, Robert and finally James. The reader knows I think – as I said before – what we are moving towards. Finally we must watch these people trying to make sense of a world, which just doesn’t feel the same anymore. In the first two sections of the novella, James is a shadowy, reserved figure, seen through the eyes of the young sons with whom he has a distant relationship. In the final section we see James as himself – in the aftermath of the great and terrible change fate has brought to his life.
“It was a shock to step across the threshold of the library and find everything unchanged. The chairs, the white bookcases, the rugs and curtains – even his pipe cleaners on the mantel behind the clock. He had left them there before he went away. He crossed the room and heard his own footsteps echoing. And knew that, now that he lived alone, he would go on hearing them as long as he lived.”
I loved this novella, its rather haunting quality will stay in my mind I think for a long time, and it proved to be a superb start to my Maxwell reading.