The Girl in a Swing
The Girl in a Swing is part psychological thriller, part paranormal horror and part twisted love story. I picked it up because it’s by Richard Adams, the author of my favorite fantasy novel, Watership Down, but anyone looking for characters as likeable as Hazel and Bigwig should look elsewhere. That’s not what this book is about.
What is it about, then? Alan Desland is a dealer in porcelain who makes a business trip to Copenhagen. There, he meets a beautiful woman called Karin, the secretary of an acquaintance. Instantly fascinated, he asks her out to dinner, though he’s sure she could never be interested in him – he believes he’s plain, dull and unattractive. Which is true. But she accepts, and they continue to meet for ten days. Finally, on the verge of his departure for England, Karin confesses she will miss him, and Alan takes the plunge, asking her to marry him. She gladly agrees.
From the start, it’s obvious Karin is hiding something. She evades questions about her past, and she’s determined to leave Copenhagen as soon as possible, so they can get married in England – though she refuses a church wedding. Besotted, Alan agrees to everything. But although Karin brings her own brand of luck to his business once they settle down, subtle but disturbing incidents occur. He hears a child crying in the garden, yet no one is there. He mistakes a green cushion for a toy tortoise, a mixup that sends Karin into a hysterical terror, though of course she refuses to tell him why. Signs and portents gather like clouds overhead, building up towards the end, when Karin’s secret finally catches up with her.
The first time I read this book, it was frustrating, because I wanted to smack Alan. If you’re in love with this woman, and if you can tell that something is worrying her, ask her about it! Daring to question your wife is not an act of lèse-majesté. But on the one occasion when Karin offers to tell him about her past, he refuses, jealous of the fact that she had a life before she met him.
And the second time I read the book, it became clear to me that this isn’t a novel about love. It’s about Alan’s obsession with Karin. To him, she’s a porcelain statue, an idol on a pedestal, a goddess, not a flawed human being – which is why he stays deep in denial about her past (for instance, where did she learn every ‘voluptuous trick’ she uses in bed?). Karin is more enigmatic – the story is told only from Alan’s perspective – but I closed the book with the impression that she wasn’t truly in love with him either. He’s a safe harbor, a man who will take her far away from a life she isn’t happy with, giving her instead respectability, financial security and utter devotion.
Less realistically, everyone who meets Karin finds her as wonderful as Alan does. Her looks are never described, but the writing is so good that I bought into the effect she has on people, though it does contribute to her Mary Sue-ness. Only one thing about the style didn’t work for me, and that’s the universal habit of quoting the Bible, Shakespeare, poetry, etc. The quotes fit the events of the plot, but it feels as though everyone is equally erudite and wanted to show it no matter what the circumstances.
At times, the novel’s pacing goes beyond slow and into glacial. Alan and Karin don’t meet until Chapter 6. That said, any time Richard Adams describes his favorite topics, the English countryside and porcelain, the descriptions are poetic. So are some of Alan’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
Karin, flesh and dancing spirit, sits in the swing, exquisite as porcelain, secretly smiling to see that I alone perceive her swinging between the huge, serrated leaves, from earth to sky and back again.
The Girl in a Swing is not an easy book to get into, but it’s a deep and intriguing one. It has a place on my favorites shelf despite my frustration with the characters – because if they weren’t this well-written, I’d be indifferent instead. Provided readers have an idea what to expect, because this novel is sometimes called erotic fiction or even romance when it’s nothing of the sort, it’s a recommended read.