Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly publication about things I’ve read

Becoming Amazons: Lisa Lutz, The Swallows

 |  1453 words

Two years ago, in the 23rd Talk about books post, I wrote about two novels featuring women on the run, one of them being Lisa Lutz’s 2016 book, The Passenger, about which I was very enthusiastic. I had bought and read The Passenger after reading a review of Lutz’s subsequent book, The Swallows (2019). In the way of reviews these days, this one did no more than hint at what the book was about; it left me with no clear idea of what kind of book I’d be reading, if I decided to read it. Unusually, though, the vagueness stimulated my interest instead of killing it off. I went online to look for a copy of The Swallows. Finding that The Passenger was cheaper and highly recommended, I decided to try that first. As you see, I was very favourably impressed.

Having read and enjoyed The Passenger, I was ready for the next book. I enjoyed The Swallows too, finding it a fast, lively and very funny read, but at the same time one that I admit made me feel uneasy. It’s set in a private school where the girl students — most of them seniors, aged about 17, but including some as young as 15 — are being sexually exploited and exposed to ridicule and humiliation by a select group of senior boys known as “the editors” (because they notionally edit an intranet, the Darkroom, which turns out to have hidden, secure, top-secret “rooms”). The story is largely about the girls finding out what the editors are up to, and taking effective, none too gentle, steps to stop it.

The girls’s fight-back is a serious business, taking on some of the qualities of a war; and its leaders come to describe themselves as an army, giving each other buzz-cuts and in a few cases openly carrying an axe on campus. Bones are broken, careers prematurely ended (in at least one case before it had properly begun) and two people die painfully, so the author at times seems to be daring the reader to laugh along with what one reviewer calls her “witty and charming style” (Booklist starred review, quoted as a blurb in the front matter). In this it’s similar to The Passenger, which reads for long passages like a light-hearted romp but whose sympathetic protagonist intentionally kills two men. In a passage I quoted in my post on that novel, she reflects:

Ten years on the run, and I was finally the cold-blooded murderer they’d always said I was. (The Passenger, p. 322)

But the source of my unease was not the violence of the “war”. It was rather the fact that the cathartic fun and games grow out of the sexual abuse of school-age students (admittedly by other school-age students). Should I really be laughing at this? Finding it entertaining? Again, Lutz seems to be challenging the reader: to admit that it is amusing and entertaining — and that there’s something the matter with us for finding it so! At the same time, of course, reminding us that a comic style does not preclude a sense of outrage — and it’s quite clear to the laughing reader that the behaviour of the editors (with one exception) and the inaction of those, including some teachers, who tolerate their behaviour are outrageous.

The combination of laughter with outrage is, after all, how some of the most savage and telling satire works. The Swallows is not exactly a satire, though it combines some of the same elements, and getting the tone right is a remarkable balancing act on Lutz’s part. That she is able to keep that balance is not a fluke, I’m sure, from reading The Passenger and what reviewers have written about some of her other books.

When I scheduled this post, I hadn’t yet noticed that The Swallows has something in common with the two novels by Liz Nugent that I wrote about last time: like them, it alternates first-person narratives by different characters. I think this is an unusual technique, though it’s possible that I’ve passed over it without noticing when I wasn’t specifically looking for it. While (as I noted in the previous post) Liz Nugent’s first novel has eight narrators and her second three, The Swallows falls between them, with five.

Three of these are male, but the two female narrators are more central and tell more of the story. One (Alex) is a teacher and the other (Gemma) a Senior who becomes the leader of the “army”. Alex is new at the school, having been fired (after a scandal) by the more prestigious prep school where she previously taught. She disclaims any vocation for teaching, seeing it as just a job which has its disadvantages “starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between” (p. 1). She’s not one of those inspirational teachers that celebrities tend to remember from their schooldays:

You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare, or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom … And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they did from me. (p. 1)

She’s been taken on by the Dean of Studies, who knows her parents, to teach English and American literature, but the first day finds herself timetabled to teach creative writing instead. The regular creative writing teacher, Finn Ford (another of the narrators) is writing a new novel and doesn’t want his style (or anything else) corrupted by having to read the students’ work. Alex starts off by giving her senior class a five-part questionnaire:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What do you hate?
  3. If you could live inside a book, which book?
  4. What do you want?
  5. Who are you? (p.30)

The questionnaire is anonymous but Alex is quickly able to identify many of the respondents. She tells some other members of staff that the aim of this is to help her work out who is predator and who is prey (p. 81). That might seem like a dispiritingly cynical approach for a teacher to take but you won’t be surprised to learn that Alex is on to something. She learns that the thing a high proportion of the female students hate is giving blowjobs.

Gemma, who describes herself in the anonymous questionnaire as “a spy”, has been biding her time, looking for the opportunity to destroy the darkroom. Alex, having figured this much out, sets the ball rolling by passing to Gemma the questionnaires of some potential allies, one of whom Gemma knew about already. Later, the most manipulative of the editors — he maintains secret files on everybody, including his fellow-editors — is able to neutralize Alex. Thanks to his efforts, she is suspended and ordered to stay away from the campus. Even if exonerated, Alex will not be coming back to Stonebridge, or indeed to teaching. But by this time, Gemma and her lieutenants have worked up their own momentum, and are heading towards a climactic conflagration.

The use of multiple narrators allows for some incidental comedy. The school is located in an extensive, wooded campus in Vermont. Alex, reluctant to have her living space anywhere near the students, initially chooses to live in an isolated wooden cabin with no electricity supply (there’s a generator) or internet. One night when they’re coming back from having drinks in the librarian’s house, Finn Ford offers to see her to her door:

It was dark. I asked Witt if she wanted company back to her cottage.

“I can’t do this tonight,” she said, sounding annoyed.

I’d offered to walk her home, not fuck her. (p. 166)

On the next page, we learn that Alex had just turned her phone back on, to find a barrage of text messages from her father. That was what she couldn’t do tonight.

I could feel the text vibrations as my father grew increasingly desperate to make contact. I was not in the mood to deal with him.

It was dark and those woods were kind of freaky and I’d forgotten to bring my flashlight. I was hoping Finn would offer to walk me home. He didn’t. (p. 167)

But he had asked; she was just too distracted to notice. There are slightly more consequential details which the reader may notice but which elude the characters, such as a more likely identity for the student codenamed “4Swallow112” (p. 387).

As I suggested above, the story culminates in a conflagration, two characters die, careers (including Alex’s) are brought to an end. Not all the plot threads are neatly resolved, not every character gets exactly what he or she deserves. Yet the outcome is thoroughly satisfying.

Edition: Titan paperback, 2019.