William Maxwell was new to me when Adele suggested his They Came Like Swallows for the book group. Avice described Maxwell's writing as 'piercing', and that became apparent early on in this sharply pared-down semi-autobiographical novel set in America in 1918. The title comes from Yeats's poem "Coole Park": "They came like swallows and like swallows went, / And yet a woman's powerful character / Could keep a swallow to its first intent...", and it is Elizabeth, wife of James and mother of Bunny and Robert, who is the 'powerful character', the centre of the family and therefore the centre of life for her husband and sons.
The book is a chamber piece, almost like a piece of chamber music in fact. Each part is led by a different person, and the dreadful inevitability of Elizabeth's death is a pervasive, plangent theme; it becomes an obbligato or continuo underpinning the story.
Thus the book is uncomfortable, in the way that shoes which pinch are uncomfortable. It's clear it's not going to be eased to 'fit', and the economy of the writing means the reader can't ignore this. Bunny's awkwardness and frustration with his father, for instance, is painful to watch: "Ever since that time he had been trying to make a place for his father within his own arranged existence - and always unsucessfully", or "....he would go out to the kitchen and pay a visit to Sophie, whose conversation did not leave off where it ought to begin." His need for his mother is plain and urgent - see the passage I quoted in yesterday's post, or "From Irene's hands he drew excitement, and from his mother's the fact that she loved him."
Equally painful is the idea that the family were somehow responsible for Elizabeth's death; the incident with the bird in Bunny's sick-room where Elizabeth had been forbidden by the doctor to go for fear of catching influenza, and James's insistence on taking a particular train which might again have led to his wife's exposure to the illness which killed her.
From the acutely perceptive child's-eye-view of a very contained and then fractured life, to the adult's response to bereavement - for example the scene in which James finds Elizabeth's clothes, her scent, her trinkets : "That was all which was left to him of his love .... For she had put him aside, he said to himself, casually with her life", the effect of the whole is heart-rending.
What did you think?