The Swallow by Charis Cotter
Published September 2014 by Tundra Books
Both Polly and Rose feel invisible for very different reasons. Polly is a small part of an ever growing family, as her home continues to shrink and she is forced to share everything, the only respite that she has is hiding out in the attic reading ghost stories, fueling her imagination and her desire to be able to really see ghosts. Rose also feels invisible as the only child of overly busy and distant parents attended only by an old crotchety housekeeper she feels lonesome and can go days without really talking to anyone – all Rose really wants, though, is to stop seeing ghosts filled with their silent sadness. Rose too finds a place of solace in the attic where her Grandmother used to read in peace. It is there that the two girls meet through the wall and at first Polly is convinced that Rose is a ghost, and honestly, Rose isn’t entirely sure that Polly is wrong.
A fast friendship ensues with Polly, a bright and brash girl with a penchant for sweets and a warm easy manner softening Rose’s solemn iciness. Together they take on the mystery of Rose’s aunt Winnifred who haunts the attic and bears a striking resemblance to Rose and deep hatred for Polly…
The Swallow: A Ghost Story was an exceptional and original ghost story that offered twists and challenges for the reader at every turn. I was never absolutely certain of anything and that was so rewarding for me because as I started I was expecting a story full of coincidence and unsatisfying cliché, but boy was I wrong. Every complaint that I had at the beginning of the book was subtly put to ease, and with astonishment, I realized that it was a plant! Chotter was tricking me into thinking (just like Polly) this was going to be a conventional ghost story, and then it wasn’t.
I wasn’t exactly taken with the opening of the book. I found that these two exact opposite girls in exact opposite situations sharing a duplex (exact opposite houses) are neighbours with one wishing for the gift that the other had and hated… well, it was all a bit too coincidental. Coupled with each chapter alternating between Polly and Rose’s points of view – which I wasn’t sure was going to be anything more than pacing device I was about to give up on The Swallow but I didn’t… and I didn’t because, well, probably because of the mood. Immediately the reader can sense that there is something amiss in this house, and that the ghost that is on edge is not a nice ghost. These girls will need each other to solve the problem, but how will they do it? How will they work together? I suppose, despite the first few chapters of sloughing, I was hooked.
Set in 1960’s Toronto, in an old house that I would have loved to explore if I were a kid, I was also quite enamoured with the setting. It was just so classically haunted and dripping with ambiance and mood. Chotter did such an excellent job meeting ghost story conventions (burnt out flashlights, secret passages, haunted houses, a cemetery, spooky singing etc…) and then deftly undermining the readers suppositions with the characters’ own understanding of ghosts and ghost stories and the books own ghost logic… well, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the ride despite the slightly unbelievable coincidence – and I was certainly not disappointed as I continued to read and found that explanations, as they came, were so sweetly satisfying and very uncoincidental.
The alternating between the two girls’ perspectives was at times a bit confusing, particularly when they interacted with each other (switching from Polly saying ‘I’ to Rose saying ‘I’ during the same conversation) as the story continued it only added to the confusing tension of the read. Both of the characters were a little spooky and they were both sensitive young girls who were at once down to earth but also willing to extend their imaginations. The bond between the two is fast, but it is firm and believable, a friendly love grows between Rose and Polly and as the story reaches it’s climax and conclusion it is ultimately their friendship that carries the story through. The Swallow is full of thrills and chills is ultimately a very cleverly plotted book that satisfied my need for a spooky and tricky tale and combined it with a story that truly revolves around friendship and the meaning of being visible to someone who cares.
I highly recommend this book – it truly is original, spooky and a fast paced read.