Book Review

Book Review: Swan Song, by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018)

4 stars

This novel is captivating. It came to my attention thanks to its appearance on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I immediately searched my library’s online catalogue and downloaded the first book that was available. It has set a very high standard for me and has made me excited to read other longlisted works. So, what is Swansong all about you may ask?

The premise:

‘Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.’

1975 – Truman Capote uses his literary prowess to share the intimate secrets of the elite circles he had gained acceptance into. Tearing the group apart, this act proved to be professional and social suicide for the writer, less than a decade after his success with In Cold Blood. Why did he do it? To make them pay for their privilege and their judgements? Or could he simply not imagine that they would be offended by anything produced by his genius?

One thing is certain: words prove time and again to be his most lethal weapon.

My review:If I could define the main theme of this book, it would certainly be the power of words.

‘He seduced us all with his words – and Truman knows full well the power of words. They’re both armour and weapon, the one thing he’s sure of.’

Swan Song is a book about a writer first and foremost; Greenberg-Jephcott is a writer using words to imagine and explore another writer’s life and their use of words. The seismic event upon which the story pivots is not ‘action’ based in the usual sense: it’s an excerpt of a book being published in a magazine, a book founded upon the stories told to the writer by and about his friends. In Swan Song, words captivate and betray, heal and destroy, entertain and torment.

From the beginning of this book, Greenberg-Jephcott invites us into a curiously surreal narrative world that toys with perspective and, as historical fiction does, with the distinction of fact and fiction. The main player in this story seems ethereal yet grounded in detail.

‘He runs a hand through his tissue-fine hair; a gesture of old, when a mop of thick corn-silk fringe swept across his forehead. The fringe, like so much else, is long gone, with only a habitual gesture to remind us of the tow-haired boy we once adored. A boy pampered and indulged well into middle age, courtesy of his unquestioned genius.’

Here giving the reader an intriguing interpretation of the literary figure whose exploits we will follow, such beautiful writing continues throughout, and for me was a great factor in drawing me back to this story, to these lives being explored. The intimacy of the description, set against the sense of looking back to a previous time, and the plural ‘we’ standing as narrator furthers the surreal atmosphere. After reading another book with using a similar narrative technique (The Parasites, by Daphne du Maurier), it was interesting to see what effects this had in Swan Song. Recalling the choruses featured in Greek drama, the narrative presence proves rather intimidating, and remains pivotal to the plot of Swan Song and the exploration of Truman Capote’s journey through elite social circles.

The structure cleverly works to gradually build up a picture of the relationships existing between the characters so we understand why his ‘betrayal’ had such seismic effects. Alternating focus between Truman and the women he called his ‘Swans’ – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill, and Marella Agnelli – the novel also spans decades, providing scope as well as intimate depth of character. Through many layers of narrative Greenberg-Jephcott creates her swan song, both an imagined response by the women involved in the scandal and an exploration of an artist’s final ‘performance’.

The depiction of these elite circles is both fascinating and horrifying: dripping with glamour and indulgence, it is also cruel, judgemental, and, for some, fatal. Infidelity, addiction, homophobia, gossip, lies: all disguised by diamonds and parties and vacations. Greenberg imagines the emotional realities beneath the performances and leaves us with no illusions: no one ‘betrayed’ by Truman was truly blameless or innocent. Instead, we’re shown this complicated, messy situation in which everyone is righteously angry and everyone is a hypocrite. I felt equally sympathetic to and frustrated by all the characters, and for me, that made it an interesting story.

Though I found some parts to be rather slow, my lasting feeling from reading Swan Song is one of wonder at the great depth and detail provided in this re-imagining of a great literary scandal. It has some truly fantastic writing, intriguing characters, and a gripping narrative structure weaving it all together. Swan Song is a masterful debut about a literary icon, his Swans, and the words that tore them apart. Examining the lines between gossip and slander, this novel draws you in to the world of Manhattan lunches, exclusive yachts, and secluded beaches, and all the complex human stories shared there.

*Swan Song, by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, was first published in the UK by Hutchinson, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2018

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