The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is the companion novel to her Costa Award winning novel, The Skylarks’ War, a book that I adored and which was quite possibly my book of the year in 2018. Initially I was delighted that I would be reunited with those wonderful characters who had become friends to me however this feeling gradually altered to a slight trepidation, even worry, that this could not possibly match the book that meant so much to me. I should never have worried. The Swallows’ Flight is superb, a story of immense hope and love which restores your faith in the infinite possibilities that life holds.
Spanning the period from 1931 until 1947 we meet again Clarry, Rupert, Peter and Vanessa from Skylarks yet this story focuses on the next generation of young people who will grow up against the backdrop of another world war. It may be helpful to know that this beautiful story does work as a stand alone in its own right. Four separate narratives unfold alongside each other as the story develops. In England Kate, the youngest of Peter and Vanessa’s brood of nine children, perhaps a little over protected, and Ruby Amaryllis, god-daughter to the delightful Clarry and a little lacking in confidence, are two girls who lead very different lives but will find themselves thrown together in friendship when war breaks out. Meanwhile in Berlin ten year old Erik and his best friend Hans are wrapped up in their shared interest in the city zoo and Erik’s attempts to save some baby swallows, little imagining the horror that will change their lives in a few years time. Finally in a city scrapyard an old neglected dog languishes with no hope for the future. Meanwhile as the threat of war grows ever more inevitable Rupert and Clarry do what they can to work towards peace.
Hilary McKay’s writing is exquisite and I can think of no other author who is able to capture families and their conversation quite as well as she does. The tiny everyday details, the shorthand speech that requires no full explanation, an entire message in one look, the love, the humour, the irritations and the warmth all shine from the page as you read. Her style makes reading feel effortless too and her characters become real flesh and blood people. The sections telling the story of Erik and his best friend Hans depict the closeness of their bond as their relationship becomes almost like that of brothers. As they grew to young men I was struck by how their jokes and banter, covering a love between the two, reminded me very much of my own two sons, now adults. Erik and Hans will go on to become Luftwaffe pilots. The telling of the story from both sides adds an important extra dimension to this work of historical fiction.
Hilary McKay does not shy away from the horrors of this war, the losses and the dreadful impact on so many yet she always gives her reader a glimpse of light in the darkness. The different threads to the story, all equally engaging, are gradually brought together in a beautiful tapestry of life that is both immensely moving and immensely hopeful. A sensitive yet powerful story, exquisitely told and one that has a profound impact on the reader. Highly recommended and a book I will treasure.
If you have not already read it I can wholeheartedly recommend The Skylarks’ War, the story of Clarry and her family and friends. You may also like to try The Time of Green Magic, a contemporary family story by the same author.