And yet a woman's powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seem to whirl upon a compass-point
Found certainty upon the dreaming air...'
William Maxwell's epigram to his beautiful novel They Came Like Swallows and how could I resist this picture of our swallows preparing to leave last summer.
It's always such a strange day too.
We get so used to them taking up residence, we live and work around their busy and constant daily presence, we watch the babies grow and if we're lucky and happen to be around the day the babies leave the nest and learn to fly, we see them lined up outside the kitchen window, plucking up the courage to take off.
Until suddenly that day arrives. There they are, circling around, unsettled and gathering, lots of noisy ceremonial fly pasts and aerobatic displays and suddenly you realise it's gone very quiet. You look up and the sky is empty and they've gone and I always feel a bit forlorn and melancholic because that's it, summer's done.
Writing that suddenly makes me yearn for these summer days again very soon, I'm almost done with winter now and if there's an opposite to forlorn I'm it and happily anticipating the arrival of the swallows.
But what an exquisite book this is and quite how has it remained hidden from me for so long remains one of life's big unsolved mysteries... a bit like the mystery of how those swallows know to come back to the same nest on our verandah year on year?
You may recall that They Came Like Swallows is the book I started in the cafe at Honiton and could have happily stayed put in that corner for several hours reading.
I knew then it was of those very special reads that come along every so often. The sort of book I'd buy in duplicate if I ever saw it in a charity shop because there would always be someone I'd want to pass it on to.
'Bunny did not waken all at once. A sound (what, he did not know) struck the surface of his sleep and sank like a stone. His dream subsided leaving him awake, stranded, on his bed. He turned helplessly and confronted the ceiling. A pipe had burst the winter before, and now there was an outline of a yellow lake.'
It is November 1918, and Peter Morison, known as Bunny, is eight, waking up one morning and reaching for the doll Araminta Culpepper he's really supposed to be too old to love but love it he does.
In an instant William Maxwell creates a child's world and a child's voice of such unfailing accuracy that you almost still your breathing to a minimum as you read for fear of disturbing it all..
' The lake become a bird with a plumed head and straggling tail feathers, while Bunny was looking at it.'
Bunny is a sensitive, introspective child much given to deep thoughts of total relevance to an eight year old, whilst his brother Robert at thirteen "is very trying" and seems to have been put on this earth to torment him. Bunny cannot recall a single day when Robert hasn't made him cry.
William Maxwell allows a great head of judgmental reader steam to build up before revealing perhaps why Robert behaves as he does, and there is much reader back-tracking and reforming of opinions as a result.
Mrs Morison meanwhile is sitting sewing and working at something that seems very mysterious to Bunny, she is hemming squares of white cloth and when he hears the word 'diapers', Bunny and we know that changes are in the offing.
Like most children of his age Bunny is the centre of his own universe and, though by this age a child's wider vocabulary is settling into place, they often don't know the right questions to ask or have a baseline of experience of life events to know how to act or behave and this to me is always one of the pitfalls for any author using a child for the narrative voice.
You can invest them with intelligence and knowledge and it will perhaps feel congruous and possible, but it's far too easy to invest them with a greater degree of emotional intelligence and maturity than even the most gifted child is capable of.
No such pitfalls for William Maxwell and Bunny,
'But it was not easy to describe things. Especially things that had happened. For him to think of things was to see them - schoolyard, bare trees, gravel and walks, furnace rooms, the eaves along the south end of the building. Where among so many things should he begin?'
Robert would not have had any trouble.'
Children have to be allowed plenty of room in a novel, space in which not to know things, yet as adult readers we somehow have to be shown them. William Maxwell's method is clever because he allows Bunny to eavesdrop,
'They said Little pitchers have big ears. On the other hand there were ways of keeping from being noticed...after a while if he kept his eyes closed and breathed regularly, they thought he was asleep. That way he found out all sorts of things.'
The reader is complicit in the act but understands far more about what is said than Bunny does.
Children have to be allowed magical thinking too and Bunny indulges in plenty of that yet it is not Bunny but his mother, Elizabeth Morison who is the centre of this world and it is her relationship to all her family that ultimately may be tested.
There's so much more I'd love to say but can't for fear of giving away the essence of the plot and though you may hazard a guess at it, I had tried not to as I read so was hit by the full impact and have a duty to honour that reading experience for any of you who may not have read this either.
Suffice to say there is a great deal more that William Maxwell pitches absolutely perfectly with his portrayal of this family and I closed They Came Like Swallows knowing I had read something very special indeed.