Review: The Swallow by Charis Cotter

Author: Charis Cotter
Title: The Swallow: A Ghost Story
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2014
Publisher: Tundra Books
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Middle grade ghost story
Why I Read: Intriguing premise, cute cover
Read If You’re: Looking for a good ghost story, or a story about friendship
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
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I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Publisher’s description: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.

Recently, I read Doll Bones. I was most looking forward to the creepy aspect of that book, but the ghost story line seemed to fall by the side in favour of the friendship/growing up story line. Happily, The Swallow satisfied my desire for an eerie middle grade read, striking just the right balance between belonging and friendship, and ghostly terror. A handful of frightening scenes made me anxious while reading this book in the dark before bed! But the fright is not prolonged or overwhelming. There are humorous scenes that do not detract from the creepy of the story, but add to the realistic portrayal of a budding friendship between two young girls. The scene in which they meet for the first time is a particularly good example of this. I enjoyed the focus on the relationships between the two girls and their respective families. I liked that the ghost story is integral to their own lives, and not part of some outside adventure like in Doll Bones. I was surprised to find some emotional parts in this book well – I actually teared up! The story of searching for belonging at that age is one I think many children might relate to.

The story is written in first person, with chapters alternating between Polly and Rose. Some may find such a narration confusing, especially given the short chapters, but I thought the transitions felt seamless and comfortable. I appreciate this sort of narrative because I think it gives you a better understanding of a character than if you learn about them solely through a third or first person perspective. In The Swallow particularly, this style keeps the reader on their toes about whether Rose is a ghost.

Please Note: The next paragraph discusses the conclusion of The Swallow. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

The twist!! There is a twist, and I didn’t expect it at all. I assumed the setting of the 1960s was for atmospheric purposes, so when the timing became significant to the plot I thought “Doh!” I was totally prepared for the main drive of the story being the conclusion of whether Rose is a ghost. So, when a twist came, I was very pleased that it was not over the top (i.e., preceding by heavy foreshadowing and anticipation that something was going to happen), and that it really came as a surprise to me. It was hinted at shortly before the reveal, so I did guess, but I believe you were meant to – it wasn’t dragged out for very long and while the actual revelation was still a surprise, I was excited to read it and I exclaimed “OH OH YES VERY GOOD!!” Well done, Ms. Cotter. I do have one criticism about the conclusion, however. There is no resolution between Polly and her brothers. There’s a moment where they mention they feel like her death was their fault, drawing a clear parallel between how Willie felt about Winnie. I think some sort of farewell between the three of them before Polly moved on would have been appropriate.

 

The Bottom Line: A great debut novel that will grab your attention from the start, The Swallow provides equal enjoyment for those looking for a good tale about belonging and friendship, or for those looking for a spooky ghost story.

Further Reading: