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5.0 out of 5 stars A superlative novella, please ignore the appalling internal presentation, 19 Feb 2014
This review is from: They Came Like Swallows (Panther) (Paperback)
The career of William Maxwell, 1908-2000, was divided between his writing and his longstanding position as fiction editor for The New Yorker, 1936-75, where he played a significant role in establishing the literary careers of Updike, Cheever, O’Hara, Harold Brodkey and Eudora Welty. His own literature cannot be said to have suffered from this division of responsibilities since he received many prizes, awards and accolades and this novella, published in 1937, has never been out of print.

It is, however, true that his work is better known in his own country. All the more reason for this book to be republished in 2008 by Vintage Classics and the writing will certainly encourage readers to explore his 5 novels [The Château, 1961, being an excellent exploration of the love and sadness of a childless American couple in post-war France], collections of short stories and non-fictional work. It is true that post-war events in America do not feature in Maxwell’s work and his description of post-war France in The Château is very different from the perspective of other American writers of the time.

Delicacy may not be a widely-appreciated appreciated quality today but writing such as we have here shows how muscular and flowing such a term can be. There are autobiographical elements in this book, as in his other works - one brother having part of a leg amputated, the family’s Scottish ancestry, the very different characters of the siblings as well as other matters that are central to the story.

The narrative centres on Bunny, the eight year old son of the Morison’s, the father, James, who dominates whatever he is involved with, including the family and its musical evenings, and the mother, Elizabeth, patient and, compared to her sister, Irene, much heavier, when buying clothes she would be asked ‘Something for the stylish stout?’ The period is America at the end of the Great War but a more significant threat is the influenza epidemic which is all around and too close to the household for comfort.

The three parts of the story are written from the perspectives of Bunny, Robert and their parents. The adults’ conversation goes over the heads of the Bunny and his elder brother, Robert, who bullies Bunny, a sign of his lack of confidence. ‘They communicated with each other out of knowledge and experience inaccessible to Bunny. By nods and silences. By a tired curve of his mother’s mouth. By his father’s measuring glance over the top of his spectacles’. However, Bunny manages to glean information by overhearing adults’ conversations whilst hiding or feigning sleep. Bunny’s enjoyment comes from playing by himself but he is often interrupted by his parents and told to do something more useful or productive.

The author presents his characters, all from within the Morison extended family and household, in a very deft and measured manner, that include references to generational and gender issues, which belie its emotional impact on the reader. When the boys stay with their god-fearing Aunt Clara and Uncle Wilfred, it is only with the sound of a train whistle that Robert realises the absence of his parents, ‘two long, two short, and then a mournful very long…. Robert listened until he heard it again. Two long….two short….And knew all in one miserable second that his father and mother were on that train; that they had gone away and left him in this house which was not a comfortable kind of house, with people who were not the kind of people he liked; and that he would not see them again for a long time, if ever’. Instead of being out playing, even with his amputation he is good at tennis and American football, he is reduced to reading a dictionary he aunt had hidden away ‘Finding the wrong kind of words in the dictionary was not a crime. They couldn’t put him in prison for it’.

In their different ways, both Robert and his father blame themselves for the story’s central tragedy. While Irene convinces the former that this is untrue we are left suspecting that the father will find no such way out. A very selfish man, he ignores Bunny and the novella’s last paragraph does not bode well for the family’s future.

The cover illustration is particularly appropriate, a tousle-haired, sulking boy. However, the presentation is quite awful, thick black, slightly-blurry print that does the publishers and printers no credit, and is off-putting to the reader. It also does a great disservice to an immensely-talented author.

I would urge prospective readers not to be put off and to read what is an exceptional novella about the strengths and fissures of family life.
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Dr R

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