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The Swallow and the Dark

Style: Average

Attitude: Take Care → Unobjectionable

In Brief: A story which tries sincerely to balance and contrast life and death for a modern youngster and his counterpart in the Great War, but which ultimately lacks depth. Inconclusive look at life & death; divorced family background

Cover of The Swallow and the Dark

Author: Andrew Matthews

Publisher: Corgi

Published in: 2005

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Contemporary

Genres:  Coping withHistoricalTime-TravelWar


Characters:

  • Sam is a 16-year-old coming to terms with a terminal illness.

Synopsis:

Sam is diagnosed with Spengler's Syndrome, a terminal illness, and must come to terms with his own mortality. As the illness takes hold, he finds himself slipping between the present day and the period of the First World War.

Notes:

This book feels like the awkward fusion of two ideas, neither of which really succeeds entirely and which don't complement each other enough to work as a unity. On the one hand, you have the story of a young man who is diagnosed as terminally ill, and who must come to terms with this, helped by his mother (his parents are divorced), and helping his friends who find it harder to accept than he does. On the other hand, you have a story of someone learning what it was to live and to die at the time of the Great War on account of some sort of time-shift, which sometimes happen in Sam's moments of unconsciousness and sometimes when he's clearly awake.

The swallow and the dark of the title are the author's admitted paraphrasing of St Bede's picture of this life as seen by a sparrow (in the original) who flies in from the night through the windows of a bright hall, briefly sees the life and light within and then flies out again. The author uses it here to highlight Sam's uncertainty about life: “The darkness on either side of the room stood for the time before you were born, and for after you were dead. Is that what death's like? Sam wondered. Night for ever, no moon and stars, no heat or cold, no wind or rain? ... He needed a focus, something that would give meaning to the life he had left, and he had to find it quickly.” Sadly, though, in realistic terms, Sam neither finds a focus to this life, nor any reassurance about the next. At some point, he half-remembers vague bits of RE lessons, but concludes that he couldn't “believe in God either, especially the kind of God who created a universe where Sam could develop Spengler's syndrome.”

The other part of the book focuses on Sam's alter-ego in the war years, who grows up with his friend and then fiancée Marion, and eventually finds himself on the Western Front. This is a world Sam drifts into in his unconsciousness, and since you know that he has always had a fascination for the period of the Great War, you could believe that this was his imagination at work. But then two things happen: out for a walk, he suddenly slips time tracks and meets Marion; and with his mother, visiting some stately home, he sees a portrait of the adult Marion. So Marion is, or was, real. But where does this leave us? Is there supposed to be an Edwardian alter-ego for everyone who's ill? Does death consist in returning to life for an idyllic country childhood some eighty years before you were born?

The passages, which become extended as Sam enters a final coma, detailing the experiences of the World War are readable and competent. The young officer Sam is appalled by the attitude of other officers towards the men, and his fellow soldiers voice the modern concerns that the enemy is probably made up of unwilling young men just like themselves. It's not too different to, say, Private Peaceful. But it doesn't seem to be doing very much except to lead up to Sam's death, parallelling his death in the real world.

So where does that leave the reader? Having two Sams mirror each other's lives and deaths might make you think about the plight of two young men in similar situations now and in 1916, but there should be something more which makes the story work.

Sam's relationships with those around him do little to enhance the story. His mother's terrifically supportive of him, but his divorced father doesn't appear in person until the final act — presumably when his wife informs him of Sam's imminent death. Sam has imagined his father's arrival several times and always with tremendous bitterness and refusal to attempt any reconciliation. In a nice scene, and one of the few moments of real human emotion in the book, Sam's best friend Sean turns up and finds it harder than Sam himself to accept his death. Sean — in what must be one of the hardest things for a 16-year-old boy to say to another — admits his love for Sam: “'Not like going-to-bed-together type love,' Sean explained, 'but I care about you.'” No other sources of wisdom or experience are forthcoming: no priest, no wise teacher, not even a modern counsellor, and Sam is left to make up his own mind about life and death. Which he doesn't, really, leaving the reader short-changed.

Themes:

  • Life & Death
  • War — differences between officers and men.

Sean just couldn't get his head around it. Death was for old people, soldiers in battle, or accident victims. It wasn't supposed to happen to people in Year Eleven: they had futures in front of them, futures in which they might achieve anything. He spilled out his bewilderment and resentment in a barely comprehensible tirade. When he started crying, Sam felt embarrassed.

Friday 12th August 2005