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.