by Ali Cooper
302 pages, Standing Stone Press
Review by Judith Kinghorn
With an intriguing premise and a coveted gold star, The Girl on the Swing was the very first book I dipped into on the Harper Collins Authonomy website. From those first few chapters I knew that this was a book I’d like to read in its entirety, a book I’d be more than happy to buy. Almost exactly one year later - I did.
With the teasing opening line, ‘It takes a while for my eyes to adjust, then gradually I see it’, the reader is drawn into this first-person narrative with some intoxicating prose: ‘It is a garden of high summer. Where hollyhocks turn their faces to the sun. Where oriental poppies, full and red, grow taller than I have ever seen. Where roses twist and turn over timber archways. Where delphiniums reach from their hiding places to erupt in a surprise of iridescent blue.’ But this book offers much more than simply beautiful prose.
The Girl on the Swing is a complex and absorbing read: a novel about birth and death; about saving lives and past lives. And it is also the story of Julia. Grieving for her lost child and suspended from her job, Julia knows she has lived before and is pulled back to another time and place; a place we are taken to, and see through her eyes. When she first set eyes on the garden at Kimberley Place – the event which triggered memories of a past life, she was ‘overwhelmed with love’ for her then unborn child. The two events became linked together in her mind and over two decades later, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her only child, her son, she goes back to this place: the place of another life.
The themes of life and death, birth and rebirth are woven further into the story as Julia discovers she has been suspended from her job – delivering ‘new lives’, because of an action brought against her by the husband of a woman whose life she was unable to save during a difficult birth. As she moves through empty days, grieving for her dead son and pondering on the legal case ahead, her heart surgeon husband, Richard, is invariably unavailable. Working at the hospital she has been suspended from - he has other lives to save. In a bid to try and heal her grief, and in order not to dwell on the ‘death that should have been a birth’, she decides to take on voluntary work at the local prison, bringing her face to face with someone from her past life.
Julia’s loneliness and yearning to go back to another time are palpable, and are mirrored in evocative descriptions of the landscape and elements: ‘A grey mist hangs over the day, blurring the transition from night into morning. I know from experience that this cheerless haze will probably last all day, clinging onto buildings and trees, until, in the late afternoon, it is gulped down the dark throat of a premature night.’ The powerful metaphors and allusions to birth throughout the book continually remind us of Julia’s role in life, and the themes of birth and death are reinforced by the passing of seasons and lifetimes, and a connection to the earth: Mother Earth. The pull of her past life is like ‘a separate being, gathering its own energy. It will grow and punch and kick until it is free.’
As Julia drifts back and forth in time, the author’s knowledge, love of, and connection with, flowers, plants and nature are much in evidence and used with stunning effect in descriptive prose linking the internal and external landscapes. And, because this is a book written in the first person, because of the language, the choice of words and the internal dialogue, there’s an intimacy to the narrative. The reader is always inside Julia’s head, looking at the world through her eyes, questioning this life: ‘I think about the theory of parallel universes, the possibility that millions of worlds inhabit the same time and space, that in other dimensions we are living a palimpsest of subtly different lives, a new one branching off every time we make a decision.’
For me, there were some minor inconsistencies in the characterisation. Julia lives in a box, but thinks beyond the box; and yet, for me, at least, her reactions to the dramatic, life–changing events taking place around her, particularly towards the end of the book, seemed muted and perfunctory. I reasoned that this may have been because she is a scientist: cold and clinical, analytical. For much of the book Richard seemed too much of a one dimensional character: cold, heartless and unfeeling; ‘as mechanical as one of his false hearts’. I wanted to like him, but couldn’t, even during the very clever twist at the end of the book. That said, The Girl on The Swing is a compelling read: a well-structured, thought provoking work of fiction; a novel which challenges our conceptions on many levels, and which lingers on, long after we have turned the last page.