This is one of those novels which defies categorisation, wide in its scope and the ideas contained within. It starts in Krakow in 1939 where Anna, only seven, awaits the return of her professor father from a meeting. He does not come back and the encounter with the Swallow Man defines the next few years of her life as together they walk the length and breadth of Poland avoiding people and particularly the Wolves and the Bears, German and Russian soldiers respectively. Anna is a remarkable seven-year-old, speaking many languages and putting her life in the hands of a man she does not know.
Time is not important in this story, more it is the relationship of Anna and the Swallow Man whose real name she never knows and who ask her not to reveal her name to anyone. “Names are ways for people to find us” he tells her. It is not clear until the end why the man is walking or indeed where he is going but as they travel, often physically a way apart, he imparts his view of life. In his bag he carries city and country clothes for them both, his medication, a gun, knife and a baby’s shoe. The encounter with Reb Hirschl, a Jew who gives Anna a view of the world she had forgotten, of fun and laughter, changes things as does the discovery of a mass grave. Their discovery by the Pedlar who threatens them after all the Swallow Man’s endeavours to keep them safe forcing him to kill the man, disturbs the uneasy threesome. Hirschl cannot accept the killing, leaves and is murdered in the woods. Things unravel further when Anna debases herself with the pharmacist to get the pills he so desperately needs. Harsh life has intruded on their relationship and the Swallow Man sends her to safety.
All of humanity is in this story, the warmth of human kindness, the brutality of war, understanding the ways of people, and most importantly the search for something better.
In an extraordinary and many layered novel which is not a child’s story of war, but an adult’s view of it with all the questions it raises of ethics and morality. Gabriel Savit has written an accomplished first book, likely to appeal to young adults with open and thoughtful minds.