This book cast a spell on me. Anna is a fantastic character, and the tale of her travels with the man known only as the ‘swallow man’ is an entrancing one, beautifully told.
Anna’s father is a professor of Linguistics at the Jagiallonian University in Krakow (Poland), and one day he leaves her with their German doctor friend, and never returns.
Anna is seven, but thanks to her upbringing, she isn’t the type of 7-year-old girl we may be familiar with. She has been brought up in an adults’ world, speaking five languages fluently, and conversing in three others. So when her father leaves her during the German occupation of Poland in 1939, she is perhaps more resilient than many would be in a similar situation.
Anna is abandoned outside her apartment by the Doktor, then waits there for her fathers’ return; put off by a neighbour, she then returns to Herr Doktor Fuchsmann’s shop. She waits there for him to ask her in, but the Doktor frustratingly ignores her, wishing to stay on the right side of his German countrymen for the troubled days ahead.
The swallow man comes to buy from the Doktor, and asks Anna four questions, in four different languages, on his way into the shop. She doesn’t respond straight away, but upon his exit from the shop, answers each question in the language in which it was asked. While the man is not an easy presence to be in, Anna is persuaded by his offering of a cookie, to accept this as a transfer of responsibility from the Doktor (who she knew prior to this day to always be ready with a cookie) to this strange man. She follows him out of Krakow.
As they travel together, Anna learns the language of ‘Road’, and the swallow man encourages her to keep her true identity secret, while doing the same with his – referring to her only as ‘sweetie’. Their journey is to keep moving – they aren’t going anywhere. At some point of the journey, Anna meets a drunk Jewish man, playing silently on his clarinet. Against the swallow man’s instincts, he ultimately joins them and they cross over a border into another country soon after, eating what is left in corpse’s gunny bags. While this sounds awful, and it is, the most terrifying part of the book is yet to come, as Anna is forced, aged 11, to take charge of their journey.
Anna and the Swallow Man is a unique book to experience, and the telling of this story is elegant and essential, with the literary flourishes just adding to this. As I read it, I recalled Melinda Szymanik’s book A Winter’s Day in 1939, which is the retelling of her father’s experience in Poland of WWII. If you, like I, are fascinated by the experience of war for innocents, read this book. It is the most affecting tale of a child in wartime since The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Anna and the Swallow Man
by Gavriel Savit
Published by Corgi Books