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October 1, 2020

A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling ~ a Review

by MK French


On the day that the Japanese emperor announced Japan's surrender in WWII, three men that had been involved in the war surrounding a village would return after their deaths and meet again in the afterlife. One is an American pastor that had done missionary work in the area for years, one is an American that had been training Chinese soldiers, and one is a Chinese sharpshooter. When they have all returned seventy years later, the only person missing in Ah Yan, which translates to Swallow, and was also known as Stella and Wende by the men. Her presence in their lives made profound changes, and her story comes together through the lens of the men's stories.

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A Single Swallow
October 2020; Amazon Crossing; 978-0761456957
audio, ebook, print (291 pages); Chinese Lit

Zhang Ling was born in China and lived in Canada since 1986. She is well known for her novels and short stories and has won several awards for them. Shelly Bryant lives in both Shanghai and Singapore throughout the year and is best known for her work as a poet, writer, and translator. Between these two women, we have a lyrical story about the atrocity of war on the simple villages far away from the front, as well as the devastation and terror it can leave in its wake. We see the war from the perspectives of these three men who had different viewpoints of WWII and its effects in China. We even get a chance to see the perspective of Ghost, the dog that Ian works with in the field. What we don't see if Ah Yan's viewpoint directly. We see her words filtered through the stories that the men tell each other, which is probably the only way you could possibly make a second person point of view work consistently. That on a technical level was fascinating to read, and the stories that the men told were all gripping.

Women fought in wars and were profoundly affected by them, so I was a little disappointed that we didn't actually see Ah Yan's viewpoint directly. In fact, the only female voice we hear directly is Millie the dog's, about two-thirds of the way through the novel. The men had all loved Ah Yan, clinging to their different names for her and their different views of her. Liu Zhaohu came the closest to understanding her, but that was filtered by his pride and sense of shame and selfishness. All three men had promised the world to Ah Yan, and none could ever really follow through the way they wanted to. The misunderstandings and miscommunications between them are also heartbreaking in how they changed the course of several lives.

I wish we could hear Ah Yan's voice for ourselves, rather than filtered through so many different perspectives. I understand that this kind of storytelling allows us to make up our own minds about her and that we're in the same position as the men were. None of them had the full picture of her, and so neither do we. In the real world, none of us know everything about the people around us, and what we know is filtered by perceptions and experiences that may have nothing to do with the person we're trying to understand. In this case, the devastation is one that hits close to home. It's a beautiful story, one that is as heartbreaking to experience as it was for the characters.

This edition of A Single Swallow was translated into English by Shelly Bryant

Buy A Single Swallow at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever. 


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