Book Review: A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling

Rating: 3 out of 5.
A Single SwallowA Single Swallow by Ling Zhang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having read this book and not loved it in the same way as many other reviewers, I feel rather guilty. I do like it and I think that the story is fascinating. It is brutal in places and often tragic. The biggest tragedies are the words that were never spoken by the main characters, which have been regretted ever since. This is a recurring theme throughout the book and clearly demonstrates that opportunities should usually be seized at the time that they arrive rather than thought about for many years to come.

The three main strands of the story are narrated by a Chinese soldier, an American pastor and an American military instructor. These characters, whilst sharing a celebratory drink on VJ day promise to return, as ghosts, to the village which pulled them together, on the anniversary of that day after their deaths. Eventually, they hope, they will meet up and reminisce. On the face of it, that’s a very clever device to enable the telling of a story from three individual points of view. But, for me, it failed.

The pastor, who is also a doctor, dies soon after the end of the war, before he can even make it back to the States. The Chinese soldier dies a few decades on. The military instructor dies at the age of 92, by which time the other two ghosts have grown impatient and angry that they have had to wait so long.

The strands of the story bear authenticity and match other accounts that I have read from the same region and period. They reveal great details and feelings which tug at my heartstrings. The binding force is Swallow, a local girl with whom each of the three main characters form differing relationships. Not only do they perceive her differently, but they each have different names for her. She is key to the development of the story from the beginning right through to the very end.

A three-star rating means that I liked the book and that I would recommend it.

So, why didn’t I rate it higher?

Ask yourselves this question. If old friends and comrades met up, even as ghosts, after many years of separation, would they sit and narrate their part of the story for hours on end without interruption? Of course not. They’d have animated conversations with many interruptions for questions and disagreements. I’ve attended many reunions and they are always filled with multiple chatter as we merrily and sometimes forlornly reminisce. Each of these characters is permitted to speak for tens of pages of the book at a time. It is impossible. That disappoints me.

Then there is an element of ridiculous. Two dogs, who played a central role in the lives of all four main characters, including the Swallow, get together for a reminisce of their own. That would be OK as it stands and would be rather entertaining. However, not only are these two dogs trilingual, speaking Mandarin, English and Dog, they are very intellectual in their language and descriptions and they are wonderful philosophers, probably more so than their human masters. They are also mind-readers. They relate the thoughts of the humans and one of them can even read a thermometer and understand the magnitude and meaning of the patient’s temperature.

Although these aspects distracted me from the amazing stories, I would still highly recommend the book to you.

Read it. I look forward to hearing your own opinions.

View all my reviews

About Lance Greenfield

Blog: email: I published my debut novel in December 2014: Eleven Miles. My second novel went live in February 2016: Knitting Can Walk!
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