Swallow by Theanna Bischoff is a lush exercise in pairings, forged and broken, and multiplicities, often layers and layers of them. That this rich layering doesn’t become affected or overpowering is testament to Bischoff’s ability to keep the effects balanced against the clear, emotionally resonant account of a young woman coping with the sudden loss of a beloved sister and the unravelling around her of other relationships and support.
The story of Darcy and her younger sister Carly is as unsettling yet infectious as Carly’s bubbly, off-kilter personality. Separated by six years, older Darcy moves steadily towards comparative maturity and security from high school to moving away to university and career, establishing connections outside her family. Carly tries to embark on her life’s path, but it’s an uneven and fraught start, to say the least. Carly’s youthful wackiness and unpredictability – endearing to some, infuriating to others, such as Darcy and Carly’s stepfather – grows into recklessness and to behaviours possibly indicative of clinical attention deficit and bipolar issues. Darcy is wrenched between her love and concern for her sister and her desire to forge her own life – until she is abruptly and cruelly relieved of that dilemma by her sister’s suicide.
Of what, then, is Swallow so lavishly composed to both frame and cushion this harsh central tale? The matryoshka doll conceit of the old nursery rhyme “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” not only contributes to the book’s multi-faceted title, but stitches the book together structurally and thematically (who is swallowing whom at each unhappy turn?) as well as hearkening to a childhood whimsy that Darcy and Carly perhaps never really enjoyed.
Recurring images of and references to broken and injured bodies, lost or possibly stolen children, abandoned children and families, absent and surrogate fathers and most pervasively, twins and partners – some potential matches, some comfortably or uneasily together, others sadly separated – all echo the troubled and troubling lives that Darcy, Carly and their frustratingly enigmatic mother navigate with diverging degrees of success. Darcy and Carly’s surrogate father, a gentle widower nicknamed Papi, rescues stray cats to which he gives the names of Toronto subway stations. The subway is the literal and figurative undercurrent of Swallow, acting as both a connector and a dramatic element of disconnection. (And again, that title … Darcy reclaims the subway but doesn’t allow it to swallow her in the end.)
The most potent symbol playing on that ever-present title is only mentioned once:
“Did you know, Darcy, that swallows mate for life?”
… “Maybe you’ve seen people with tattoos of swallows before. It actually dates back to sailors, who often had to go away for a long journey. Swallows symbolized hope for their safe return home, back to those they loved. And if someone didn’t survive, if a person drowned at sea, legend said that swallows would find the person’s soul and carry it up to Heaven.”
In the end, the dizzying multiplicities are stripped down to simple singulars – the most poignant that of one parent and one child, soldiering on. That ultimate resolution perhaps seem all the more stark, but also simple, courageous and even hopeful, because it emerges from so many complex, almost suffocating layers to get there.
Thank you to NeWest Press for providing a review copy of Swallow, by Theanna Bischoff.