A Single Swallow

Image of Lake in China

A Single Swallow is a beautifully interconnected story about a young woman during WWII China told from the perspective of three men whose time together was defined by her presence. The three men agree to meet back in China in the afterlife, and so WWII veteran Ian Ferguson, missionary and village doctor Pastor Billy, and former National Army recruit Liu Zhaohu reunite in Yuehu Village and reminisce. Each of these three men reflect on their love for the woman, piecing together her story from their personal narratives.

Each chapter is told from a different perspective with chapter titles alerting the reader to the narrator and hinting at the chapter’s contents. As Pastor Billy elegantly puts it, Ah Yan is “in the foreground, center, and background of this story,” and thus, each varying perspective works to further the reader’s collective understanding of her. Though the majority of chapters are told from the perspective of one of the three men, endearingly, a number of chapters are told from the perspective of two dogs, telling their parallel romance and highlighting in juxtaposition the absurdity of human courtship.

At the surface, the novel is about a woman’s coming of age and her journey towards independence; but more critically it’s an observation on the uniqueness, and perhaps blissful forgetfulness, of individual perception. Ah Yan’s story is not only narrated by the three men but also punctuated by their insistence on calling her each by their own chosen name:

Ah Yan, Wende, Stella. Swallow, Wind, Star. Those were her three names, or rather, three sides of her person. If you separated them, they were three entirely different parts, and it’s hard to imagine that they were all of one body. But together, you could hardly see the seams between them.

The structure of Zhang’s novel suggests that a single story, as also suggested by Chimamanda Adichie in her popular TED Talk, will never provide a complete understanding of who someone is. By providing different looks at Ah Yan, theoretically the reader sees something closer to actuality, or at the very least, a melding of multiple biased accounts. Regardless, the telling is memorable and heartfelt, a driven story with beautifully translated prose that still makes a statement about human nature.

I initially encountered this book as an Amazon First Read that I received as a free Kindle download earlier this year. But it has asserted itself as a novel that I want to read over and over again and that I itch to hold in its physical form. Re-reading this gem of a book garners further appreciation. Even just in preparing this review, I found myself alerted to new harmonies and foreshadowing throughout that further deepened my love of this multi-perspective narrative. While I normally ascribe to supporting indie bookstores and publishing companies, I must admit that Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s international imprint, has wowed me multiple times. I thoroughly recommend this read and look forward to seeing more from this author-translator duo.

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