A Single Swallow
A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling spans across continents and lives, and even delves into death to tell the story of one remarkable woman, Ah Yan, and the three men who loved her in very different and profound ways.
Although its central plot is focused on the three relationships these men have with Ah Yan, the core of this novel is not romance. Rather, Ling weaves a tapestry of stories to reveal much about human relationships – people’s relationships with their own ideals, truths, communities, and identities, with the people they love the most and with themselves.
The three main characters are wildly different. Ian Ferguson, an American soldier, is inexperienced and foreign to China, but has the self-assurance of youth. Ferguson comes on the scene stumbling into China, unprepared for the harsh realities he’ll face. Then there’s missionary Pastor Billy, a reserved, deeply religious and devoted man who finds his own principles tested by events throughout the novel. Liu Zhaohu, the last of the three men, is a local soldier, fresh from a personal tragedy and wrestling with divided loyalties and ideals. The three have nothing in common except their love for one woman, Ah Yan. Their relationships with her are all markedly distinct, but all meaningful and deeply impactful.
The setting is a character in itself: an isolated village in China, once untouched by the outside world, is now suddenly caught up in the jagged jaws of the brutal second World War. Ling does a masterful job of seamlessly weaving together magical realism and ordinary day-to-day life for scenes that are as entrancing as they are familiar. This makes the intrusion of war and its aftermath all the more vivid and heartbreaking.
With the lives of four major characters constantly in flux, it may not come as a surprise that A Single Swallow is not an easy read. At times, I needed to put it down because the descriptions of the horrors the characters experienced – while not overly gruesome – were too distressing or relentless to cope with. Brutal killings and sexual assault take place repeatedly and are painfully displayed. The characters live through poverty, death, and abandonment, and, as you read on, you soon realize that a whole spectrum of human suffering is on vivid display in the accounts of war in this novel.
For those looking for a woman’s outlook on the war, this isn’t it. While there is an enduring female role model at the centre of the book, she is more mythology than real person. Curiously, for a story that revolves so heavily around her character, the book never lets us see things from Ah Yan’s point of view. As readers, we spend a lot of time building up an image of this extraordinary woman from the perspective of these three men, with the story narrated by their ghosts (and at one point, from the viewpoint of two different dogs), but never narrated by Ah Yan herself. It’s a powerful commentary on how little agency women possessed, not only because of what happens to her in the novel and how much she had to endure, but also because ultimately, she isn’t even able to share her own story.
Despite Ah Yan’s lack of voice, A Single Swallow is a beautiful and devastating work of fiction from a master storyteller that will stay with readers and haunt their thoughts long after they finish the book.