I so wanted to love this book – it’s pitched as a dark, thrilling work of literary fiction, which is right up my street. There were many moments where I thought ‘yes, it will pick up from here’. Alas, it never did. It has its positives. O’Donnell use of language is stunning, especially in the part of the narrative focussed on Clara, the young girl around whom the story revolves. Some characters are engaging, too, which helped to sustain my interest in moments when the plot was difficult.
Mr. Crowe lives a life of luxury in his country estate with his ward, Clara, and faithful manservant, Eustace. He enjoys regular evenings out in town, occasionally bringing female entertainers home. He has made his living from his much sought after ‘talent’, a talent shared by Clara. Then, one night, Eustace watches from the window as Mr. Crowe kills a man. He knows that their lives are now in danger, with a visit from the secret society to which Mr. Crowe belongs imminent. Above all, Clara must be protected, for her gifts are far more coveted than Mr. Crowe’s.
The premise itself is great, and I was initially intrigued that the novel would be structured almost as a mystery. As well as the secret societies and coveted talents, there are disguised identities, shady acquaintances, and murderous schemes. The character focus of each chapter changes, so we understand the events from their various perspectives. As a big fan of literary fiction, I usually love novels that do this – it usually enhances my understanding of character motivations or adds suspense.
As they were used in The Maker of Swans, though, such techniques simply prolonged my confusion and therefore frustrated my reading. The story just became messy and convoluted, and certain aspects were never fully explained. I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the revelation of the ‘gift’ that Mr. Crowe and Clara possess, nor am I sure how Clara and Mr. Crowe are actually related. Characters talking in riddles to one another soon became tiresome, and some scenes become rather gory which just didn’t fit with the ethereal atmosphere of a lot of the narrative.
That ethereal, mystical atmosphere was incredibly well-realised. It primarily featured in chapters focussed on Clara, which perhaps led to her becoming the most engaging character of the entire novel. She is mute, communicating only through pen and paper or gestures. As such, much attention is paid to her ‘inner life’, including her dreams. That’s where O’Donnell makes masterful use of language and imagery. He manages to explore all the nuances and cadences of language, producing powerful, compelling visionary landscapes. Reading these sequences felt like being carried gently downstream in a river, letting you savour each aspect of the surroundings. I was mesmerised by them.
“She listens, straining outwards into the darkness, for the familiar intervals, for the cadences of the secret world. She threads the dead veins of fallen leaves, tests each frail filament of spider silk. She combs every seeded drift of air, touches every cell of the silence. She is weightless, then, beneath or between the darkness, where everything is as she remembers it, and nothing can do her harm.”
I was drawn to Clara’s resilience, her ingenuity, her compassion – which were far more interesting to me than the ‘gift’ she possessed. Her relationship with Eustace is endearing – almost fatherly-daughterly, they understand each other more than any of the other characters. Eustace himself is also an engaging character, plagued by guilt and grief, constantly striving to do good by those he serves.
The rest of the main cast of characters didn’t seem as well crafted. The motives of the chief antagonist weren’t clear, and the involvement of Mr. Crowe’s latest love interest was baffling. While O’Donnell created moments of genuine tension, where it felt that there was a genuine threat to the lives of characters, these weren’t sustained, and other moments that were probably intended to be dramatic fell flat.
The Maker of Swans was definitely a mixed bag. I admire the ambition shown in this debut, and parts were executed very well. However, the few wonderful characters and spectacular uses of language was surrounded by a convoluted and confusing plot.
**The Maker of Swans was written by Paraic O’Donnell, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (W&N), part of The Orion Publishing Group