Back home to me

Whooper Swan: engraving by Thomas Bewick

Swan Song by Gill Lewis.
Barrington Stoke 2021

Somehow this was a profounder and more affecting novella than I was expecting. Written for older pre-teens and later readers it’s written from the point of view of Dylan, a lad who hasn’t made a smooth transition from primary to secondary education and has now been permanently excluded from his urban school.

Taken by his mother to stay with her estranged father in Wales he appears to be at rock bottom, friendless in a strange land and offline to boot. But it turns out to be the best thing that has yet happened to him as he learns to look outwards rather than remaining locked in within himself.

Throw away any preconceptions about this being a mere run-of-the-mill feelgood story. It alludes to childhood depression, the difficulties facing one-parent families, loss of loved ones, trauma and the threat of environmental despoliation. And it shows that, given not only the will and the right conditions but also an innate predisposition, it’s possible to see a way through what seems like an intolerable situation.

It’s a paradox that we’re often never so alone as when we’re in a crowd. Dylan is unable to cope with school and has even provoked a fight with his only remaining friend, Asim. Following his exclusion his mother Gwyn now has to give up her job, and together they leave their urban environment and travel to a small Welsh fishing village where her widower father has a cottage. Here Dylan comes to assuage his simmering anger with fishing trips, gradually learning to manage a boat and letting nature provide the balm that he needs. Having the opportunity to care for an injured whooper swan which has flown into the estuary from Iceland to overwinter allows him to gain a new perspective, and the chance to be involved in music — especially in Wales, the Land of Song — provides for him not only a solace but also a place within a new community.

A recent entry in publisher Barrington Stoke’s mission to cater for reluctant and dyslexic readers — Anthony Mc Gowan’s excellent Lark is another — Swan Song is about encouraging alienated individuals to make connections. It is also a plea for understanding, particularly the notion that school may not be for every child and that learning can happen in alternative ways. Home-schooled, with opportunities to acquire appropriate skills through tutoring and practical applications, Dylan is able to achieve a greater measure of fulfilment: from navigation, choral singing, books, nature study, community action, and helping nursing the stricken back to health, he sees how education is more than mere rote-learning, how friendship comes from goals held in common and from joining communal activities. And with knowledge of his family’s history — how his mother grew apart from her father, how his grandfather misses his wife — he is in a position to play a part in helping heal others as well as himself.

I’ve tried to avoid giving away too much but in this novella’s seeming complexity there is simplicity, and humanity, and love. Only a personal read will reveal the interconnectedness of musical themes and the relevance of the title: the metaphor of the swan song comes from the sounds made by particular birds like whooper swans as they breathe their last, but in the author’s story a human song could be what ensures that these magnificent birds might still be heard every year in this section of the Cardigan Bay coast. Gill Lewis’ naturalist credentials bed the novella in reality and go a long way to make Swan Song both credible and moving.

11 thoughts on “Back home to me

  1. This is perfect, Chris, simply perfect. You have captured the essence of the story and also the humanity within it. I don’t know how you do this but I’m hoping I will gradually learn the skill from reading your eloquent reviews. It is a book that may help young readers and I do hope it is shared and read widely.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank, Anne, I try my best though at times I fear I lurch from eloquent to verbose!

      I don’t mind admitting that I had a little tear in my eye at one or two points in this story from the sheer emotional impact it imparts and because of its absolute truthfulness. I’m not surprised that the publishers have chosen to make this their principal feature at this time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Alyson Woodhouse

    This does indeed sound very profound, and you have tempted me to try and find it. Your review has reminded me somewhat of my own discomfort and alienation during early school days due to disability and extreme Introversion, so I’m glad the issues around alternative learning and overcoming internal barriers have been handled with sensitivity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hope you do get to read this, Alyson, as it ends on quite a few notes of hope, and I hope I didn’t trigger any unpleasant memories for you, it wasn’t intentional. We all have different learning styles, and while schools often try their best to cater for individual needs there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution — which is how institutions inevitably were set up, with conformity uppermost.

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  4. I have been trying hard to limit how many books I buy, but I just couldn’t get your review for “Swan Song” out of my head. In the end I compromised and bought a digital copy for my Kobo reader ( a ten year old failed experiment with digital reading). It was brilliant – a real gem! Thank you for capturing the essense of the book so clearly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m so pleased my recommendation was spot on, Jo, I always feel a bit of an imposter if I rate something highly in case others disagree! This novella’s good, isn’t it? 🙂

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      1. Really good – I was really taken with how powerful the story was especially given it’s small size. I think the thing I loved most was the way the grandfather helped Dylan recover his sense of self and how Dylan helped his grandad come to a place of peace about the loss of his wife later on. It struck me as really very beautiful. It seemed quite Taoist to me – setting each other free by just being natural and normal. It’s definitely one of those stories that’s going to stay with me.

        Liked by 1 person

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