An Eerie, Unsettling, Terrific Ghost Mystery
The Swallow: A Ghost Story
by Charis Cotter
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Publisher: Tundra Books
Starred Review: Kirkus
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In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.
Or is she?
I must have asked myself that question at least a dozen times while reading this wonderful, intriguing novel. The question always presented itself a few pages after I had — yet again! — determined for certain that she was not a ghost. Occasionally it came in slightly different forms, involving different characters and accompanied by gasps of insight — nearly all of which proved to be wrong. I want so much to say more, to spill just a single bean, or maybe two, and to show by examples how cleverly and subtly the author misleads the reader. But alas! I cannot reveal what should not be divulged. Oh, my…. You know, it’s a shame books aren’t generally allotted more than one subtitle because A Brow-Furrowing Mystery would have been just as appropriate as A Ghost Story.
What I can say is that Charis Cotter has written a superlative, original ghost story that challenges the rational center of the reader’s mind while increasing the beats per minute of her heart. It is a book in which one cannot be absolutely certain which character(s) are alive and which, if any, are ghosts. It is even difficult at times to be sure of what’s real and what’s not. Cotter has accomplished this feat by doing three things well:
- She inserts into the plot every significant, traditional ghost story image and setting, such as a haunted house, a cemetery, a curse, frightening dreams, a vindictive spirit, dying flashlights, and so on.
- She casts aside the rules and conventions governing the behavior and existence of ghosts, which means the reader soon finds herself adrift in the story without any of the usual moorings found in standard tales of ghosts.
- She allows her characters to set their own rules and boundaries regarding ghosts, based on their limited experience and understanding, and then, with no hint that she is doing so, Cotter quietly breaks those rules and overruns those boundaries.
It may seem like a cheat, but when explanations are finally made, everything feels right. Questions remain (though not of the “Or is she?” variety) to which no one can supply an adequate answer, but this does not lessen the impact of the novel’s climax, nor does it disturb the feeling of satisfaction one has upon turning the final page.
On another, equally enjoyable level, this is a book about acceptance and friendship. Our two heroines, Polly and Rose, take turns narrating the story, and their relationship and growing understanding of one another adds depth and interest to the plot. And yes, though tangentially and mainly symbolically, The Swallow is also about swallows.
To those who, like me, spice up their October with some spooky, Halloween-ish reading: Put The Swallow on your reading list right now.
— Jennifer Michelle
4.5 of 5 Hearts. An Eerie, Unsettling, Terrific Ghost Mystery.
The story of two young girls seeking acceptance and the freedom to be who they are, The Swallow will baffle and surprise, and warm as well as chill your heart.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Random House of Canada Limited, Tundra Books, and NetGalley for allowing me access to the title. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”