A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling – eARC Book Review

Title: A Single Swallow (review copy)

Author: Zhang Ling

Genre/Themes: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism, Translated Fiction, World War II, Japan, Multiple Timelines

Blurb from Goodreads

The eagerly awaited English translation of award-winning author Zhang Ling’s epic and intimate novel about the devastation of war, forgiveness, redemption, and the enduring power of love.

On the day of the historic 1945 Jewel Voice Broadcast—in which Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces, bringing an end to World War II—three men, flush with jubilation, made a pact. After their deaths, each year on the anniversary of the broadcast, their souls would return to the Chinese village of their younger days. It’s where they had fought—and survived—a war that shook the world and changed their own lives in unimaginable ways. Now, seventy years later, the pledge is being fulfilled by American missionary Pastor Billy, brash gunner’s mate Ian Ferguson, and local soldier Liu Zhaohu.

All that’s missing is Ah Yan—also known as Swallow—the girl each man loved, each in his own profound way.

As they unravel their personal stories of the war, and of the woman who touched them so deeply during that unforgiving time, the story of Ah Yan’s life begins to take shape, woven into view by their memories. A woman who had suffered unspeakable atrocities, and yet found the grace and dignity to survive, she’d been the one to bring them together. And it is her spark of humanity, still burning brightly, that gives these ghosts of the past the courage to look back on everything they endured and remember the woman they lost.

My Review

This story has an interesting premise and chooses a particular narrative device to tell the life story of a Chinese woman during World War II and beyond.

In 1945, on the day that Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, three men make a pact to return to the Chinese village where they all met each year on this day… even after death.

And so the book opens with the last of these three men dying and their souls finally meeting up to discuss the events of the war and how it left its mark on their lives.

Pastor Billy is an American born missionary, Ian Ferguson an American soldier and Liu Zhaohu is a local soldier… and what connects the three men is one woman.

One woman whom they each call a different name.

To Liu Zhaohu she is a Ah Yan a girl from his village that he was supposed to be married to.

To Ian Ferguson she was Wende, a local Chinese girl whom he fell in love with.

And to Pastor Billy she was Stella who provided direction to his life.

So even though this story is about this one woman we never hear her voice. She has no agency over the narrative of her life. The book is about how strong she is and how much she survives… but it’s all relative to serving the men in her life. And how those men each thought they had a claim over her.

And I’m not entirely sure that this worked for me.

I found the book meandered much too much with some parts feeling repetitive and some feeling far too underdeveloped. This book details a lot of violence and abuse that the characters experienced (primarily Ah Yan/Stella/Wende) and I felt emotionless reading it. And I think this is because each of the male points of view felt very selfish and insular. I was far too detached from Ah Yan as a character. I was wondering if an epilogue from her perspective could have in some way given this book the heart it needed but after some thought I think it would have been too little too late as by 50% of the way through this book I was just reading to get to the end.

The book briefly did change up the narrative and replaced the three male narrators with dogs….

Yup. Dogs.

If you think that sounds peculiar then you’d be right.

It utterly jarred with the rest of the novel and was something I did not enjoy at all …and I’m bonkers about dogs usually! It just felt very emotionally manipulative in one regard (spoiler alert there’s dog death) and in another way it felt like the author knew we needed a POV that wasn’t one of the three main male characters but was stubbornly refusing to give us Ah Yan’s voice.

Overall I’m sorry to say I wasn’t a fan of this one. A plot that flip-flopped too much between perspectives and at times felt rather incoherent, flat writing (all telling and no showing), and a female character that was crying out to have a few chapters from her perspective.

Not for me.

*An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*

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6 thoughts on “A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling – eARC Book Review

  1. Aww I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this one! That’s an interesting point you raise about Swallow’s agency. From the blurb, I would have expected for her character to be very nuanced based on how each man has known a different side of her (maybe?).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It just did not work for me… and I agree with you, it could have been very nuanced seeing these different parts of her through the male perspective but the writing just lacked emotional depth for me I feel and that is why I felt that she had no strong identity and that the book lacked agency.

      Liked by 1 person

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