Sunday, 17 September 2017

"Deadly, cunning innocence:" The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

I know, I know... "Girl on a Swing", right? I suppose it's a case of English idiom, and an archaic one at that. 

Anyway, the thing to note is the name Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, one of my favourite novels and definitely the best epic adventure ever written about rabbits.

Given how much I love Watership Down, it's odd that I've never read any of Adams's other fiction. But I've bounced off The Plague Dogs and Shardik without finishing either of them, and I guess I'd resigned myself to being limited to his brilliant debut.

But then Centipede Press, a small publisher of beautiful limited editions, brought out a deluxe volume of Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams's fourth novel. (It's the grey cover with the embossed skull on it, depicted here.)

Now, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and so I splashed out for the special edition... then thought, what have I done? Well, there's nothing like spending a large sum on a book to motivate me to actually read it.

And, to my delight, Girl in a Swing grabbed me immediately. It's the story of Alan Desland, a dealer in ceramics in an idyllic rural English town called Newbury.

All the detail about ceramics in the story is absolutely fascinating, but what immediately hooked me is that Alan has a gift for ESP which surfaces unpredictably and randomly through his life.

These paranormal sequences give an eerie undertow to the story and promises harrowing things to come.

Alan is a bit of a prig and a stuffed shirt and mummy's boy, self described as "rather staid and old-fashioned." Which means he uses spellings like "Esquimaux" and "Mahometans."

And also in Alan's world words like 'bus, 'phone, 'fridge have to begin with apostrophes to indicate their primordial origins in omnibus, telephone, refrigerator.

Worse yet, there's a tedious tendency to stick in numerous quotations in a variety of other languages and if proles like you or I don't understand them, to hell with us. (But Adams's desire to show off his wide ranging literacy seems a lot less annoying when later on it includes Ambrose Bierce.)

Of course, these are more Richard Adams's defects than Alan Desland's, but I'm willing to forgive them because Adams tells such an engrossing story and he writes so well:
a Chien Lung dish is described as "glowing from its ebony stand like a Chinese pheasant on a nobleman's lawn."

The Girl in a Swing is addictively readable. The description of the ceramics trade and Alan's early psychic experiences set the scene for the turning point when our hero visits Copenhagen (Or "København", as good old Alan insists on calling it) on a buying trip.

There he meets the stunning, mysterious Karin Forster and immediately falls for her. So does the reader. But Alan also describes his first impression of our heroine as "pagan — unscrupulous and ruthless" and having a "deadly, cunning innocence."

Karin is an unforgettable character. The book really comes to life when she arrives on the scene and Adams shows what a terrific writer he is; the scene where Alan and Karin first go for dinner is indelibly vivid.

In his introduction to the book Reggie Oliver is right when he says "she's up there with... Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina."

The love story is tremendously effective. But of course Karin is way out of Alan's league, and he knows it. So when she agrees to instantly abandon her life in Copehnahgen and come back to England to marry him, we fear the worst.

Their honeymoon in Florida is described with considerable sensuality, so unexpected in the tale of a grown man who was still capable of snuggling up with his mother and reading Beatrix Potter.

 And the sequence at Itchetucknee River once again shows Adams's remarkable gift for nature writing. 

Karin has not only brought passion into Alan's life, she has also brought luck. The scenes where they return to England and she wholeheartedly throws herself into helping with his business are sheer delight, culminating in her discovery of the rare figurine of the title.

But soon the honeymoon is over in more ways than one, and the book proceeds with its agenda of building supernatural horror and revealing its dark secrets.

These are heralded by an hallucination sequence reminiscent of another masterful ghost story, Kinglsey Amis's The Green Man. Alone in his house, Alan awakes to hear water flooding in. But of course everything is "dry as a bone."

Water is a source of dread throughout the book, and ultimately we will find out why. The way Adams drip-feeds us information is beautifully controlled. He's a master writer.

And he goes on to conjure a sense of incomprehensible cosmic fear worthy of Lovecraft, although Adams is a vastly better writer: "Human beings in the universe are like dogs or cats in a house. Most of what is happening is really beyond our comprehension."

When we reach the nerve-shredding climax of the book Alan experiences "a terror as much like normal fear as a leopard is like a cat." Hospitalised and sedated, he finally sleeps: "the horrors went cackling down into oblivion."

But Adams hasn't finished with us yet. Worst is still to come.And when the book ultimately gives up its secrets, and Karin's, they are profoundly shocking, and astonishing.

The Girl in a Swing is genuinely disturbing, and it really packs a punch.

So it turns out there's a lot more to Richard Adams than rabbits...

(Image credits: the covers are all from Good Reads even, surprisingly the Centipede Press edition.)


  1. A good review. So few readers seem to have understood why this story was so remarkable. I know the writing was occasionally OTT, but what does it matter?

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