Haunting ballad reinvention: Swansong by Kerry Andrew
Swansong is a haunting mix of modern life and ballad mythology in a novel about guilt, the past, and transformation. Polly is in the Scottish Highlands to escape everything that went wrong in London—her degree, her flat, her friends, and an incident after a night out she’s fleeing from. There’s not much to do except drink, drugs, and seducing the local bartender. However, Polly keeps seeing strange white shapes across the water and soon she’s intrigued by the mysterious loner who lives in the woods. She’s keeping her secret whilst trying to work out his.
Part of the novel is based on a folk ballad story and even without knowing this until the end, the book has a feeling of being steeped in tradition, whilst also being about a girl firmly in the modern day. Andrew combines descriptions of the landscape and Polly’s strange visions with imagery rooted in contemporary references to create a writing style that updates old tradition and stories of metamorphosis into another iteration, a modern one.
Swansong is a book about a young woman escaping messed up city life and mental health issues by ending up somewhere more remote, similar to other recent novels like Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking. This sub-genre feels like a reaction to modern life for young people and at its best—like in Swansong—feels like it combines literary and other traditions with contemporary issues in interesting ways. The folk music side to the novel is quite understated in the actual reading experience, becoming most apparent in the following author’s note, but the not quite natural goings on hint towards something mythological.
This is an eerie and strangely tense novel that shows how the transformation of old material and styles can produce stories both modern and traditional at once.