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Old 30th Aug 2006, 15:30   #1
Colyngbourne
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Default Richard Adams: The Girl in a Swing

Entirely on amner’s recommendation, I hunted out Richard Adams’ The Girl in A Swing this summer and sat myself down for a spooky read. At first sight it seems a rather long-winded old-fashioned sort of tale – a firmly set bachelor falling for a mysterious Germanic beauty and marrying her in an obsessive whirl of seduction and light-headedness that gives the impression of being something more than the intoxication of rapturous love.

There’s plenty of that going on. The story inches along with Alan (the main character) becoming more and more entranced physically and emotionally with Karin, stunningly bewitching yet child-like in her fears, needy yet giving little away about the reasons for her needs, or indeed anything at all of her background. It’s a weird tale that begins to haunt you little by little, like a knuckle pressing into your back when you least expect it: a chilling phone-call that pre-dates anything in recent creepy films; children’s toys that appear and disappear and fill you with dread; a sunken grassy hollow at the bottom of the garden where a garden tap can create a pool. And visions that make you turn and run the other way.

The phenomena are not easily or necessarily explained – something that might annoy or relieve you. Karin herself – the heart of the mystery – is not explained in any adequate way: I felt immense pity for her and her somewhat inescapable predicament but she was also deliberately seductive and manipulative of Alan in ways that evoked utterly Rider Haggard’s She. As both Leo and Holly in She are commanded and entranced by Ayesha, Alan similarly loses his self to Karin and never questions, never wants anything more than to love and serve her.

This lack of clarification is both excellent in maintaining the inward focus of the book, the quiet rural town where Alan plies his antique ceramic trade and an impressive vicar friend does his best to help Alan and Karin through their troubles and uncertainty. The setting is purely and simply English in a way I suspect is hard to find today – unadorned lives without all the knowing social comment that contemporary literature has to fit in with all the rest of the story. I swing between irritation and contentment at the lack of resolution – who was Karin really? Someone who appeared not quite human, amongst the ordinary tranche of townspeople and relatives Adams describes for us. Possibly Undine or Melusine, some goddess pursued by the Fates? Trapped in her own hellish serving of retribution? She clearly plays a major part in her own downfall but she is both knowing and innocent, frighteningly culpable and deceitful but also desperate for forgiveness.

The book concludes with the notion of fate – not something I can really square with generally – and that Karin, whether or not she is a true ‘goddess’ figure, so isolated that despite Alan’s devotion and forgiveness of any wrong, she cannot escape herself and cannot forgive herself either. It’s a slow build in this story but is all the more chilling for that.

¾
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 15:55   #2
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

I am delighted you liked this, Col. For years this would have been a read on my list, but has probably been demoted all the way [sic] to now.

Just popping down to amarie's desk, as I think she has it here. I'll do a p69 thing if so...hang on.


EDIT. rats, it's not here, which means it's at her house, and of course - hi amarie - she's in St Louis!
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 16:52   #3
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

Ooooh, it sounds exciting. I'm really interested at the moment in what makes things scary. One thing I've realised about the books or movies that frightened me the most ist hat things aren't over-explained in them, you get to wonder a bit. I"ll have to look this up. Thanks Col, and amner too I suppose, for bringing it to my attention.
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 17:07   #4
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

OK, anyhoo.

The Girl in a Swing is easily one of my all time Top Ten reads, and I'm chuffed that Col liked it enough to give it such a warm review.

It's the work of a man trying very hard to break out of the perceived image of talking rabbits and bears and dogs (yes, it's that Richard Adams) and so he does the last thing you'd expect in the circumstances and writes a beautifully complex and sinister love story that (does it/doesn't it?) veers towards the supernatural, the other worldly, and then back into reality again with such seamless ease that you're unsure what's real (to Alan, the protagonist) and what isn't. Col mentions certain key devices (half-hidden, half-revealed) that could be explained away and could just as easily be inexplicable works of a dark and gruesome nature, and these are the standouts; the 'phone call she mentions above is still one of my favourite creep-outs in all the books I've read, a horrible woman-in-the-red-coat-turning-round-in-Don't-Look-Now moment that even as I write is making the hairs prickle on the back of my neck.

Oh hell, there's a hundred super moments all the way through it; from a beautifully realised trip to Copenhagen (no small connection to that city's famous statue, eh Col?), to a primal and earthy meeting on the ancient Berkshire chalk hill figures, to the last terrifying moments as Alan takes Karin to the beach and her shattering destiny, this delivers in spades.

The Prologue, just a page and a half about loss and grief, as Alan begins the story alone and devastated by the events that are set to unfold, is a gripper:

Quote:
All day it has been windy - strange weather for late July - the wind swirling through the hedges and fences like an invisible floodtide among seaweed; tugging, compelling the bushes in its own direction, dragging them one way until the patches of elder and privet sagged outward from the tougher stretches of blackthorn on either side. It ripped the purple clematis from its trellis and whirled away twigs and green leaves from the oaks at the bottom of the shrubbery.

An hour ago it left the garden, but now, as evening falls, I can see it still tussling along the ridge of the downs four miles to northward. The beeches of Cottington’s Clump stand out plainly, swaying in turmoil against the pale sky, though here not a breath remains to move a blade of grass: and scarcely a sound; the blackbirds silent as the grasshoppers, the crickets, within their dense, yellow-leaved holly bush, not yet roused to their nightly chirping. Colours change in twilight. The blooms of the giant dahlias - Black Monarch and Anna Benedict - no longer glow dark-red, but loom ashen-dusky, like great, lightless lanterns tied to their stakes.

Tell me. How do I not weep?
...the ending is devastating.

Unfortunately, the book was sold with the constant, nagging, genre-implying tagline "a haunting and erotic story of the supernatural" (uggh) and must have passed so many people by because of that. It's far far too complex to be pigeon-holed in such a lazy manner and Adams has been done a massive injustice because of it.
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 17:40   #5
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

Quote:
Originally Posted by amner View Post

Unfortunately, the book was sold with the constant, nagging, genre-implying tagline "a haunting and erotic story of the supernatural" (uggh)and must have passed so many people by because of that. It's far far too complex to be pigeon-holed in such a lazy manner and Adams has been done a massive injustice because of it.
Edit: it was AN Wilson, not Burgess ( ) who commented on this:

Quote:
I remember reviewing a book by Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down. He then went on to write a book about humans called The Girl in a Swing. I thought it was possibly the worst thing I had ever read. I met him seven years later and he proceeded to quote the whole review. He then asked me: “Would you consider that to be a fair review?” He then went on and on about it and eventually sent me around 20 letters on the subject. He even invited me to dinner where he quoted my review again. Then he said that we should put the matter behind us, which I thought was odd since it was Adams who had brought the matter up in the first place. The thing to remember is that it is very rare to have a critic say exactly what they think these days. Most critics will not tell you that the vast majority of books published are crap.
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 17:52   #6
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

And hunting around, there's a reference that says PJ Harvey based her song "Down by the Water" on this book.
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 17:53   #7
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

I remember reading that review contemporaneously, and then thinking - when I saw A.N. Wilson on the box shortly after - what a pompous little oik he was. It was the attack on it, oddly, that made me buy it in the first place.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Colyngbourne View Post
And hunting around, there's a reference that says PJ Harvey based her song "Down by the Water" on this book.
Yep, kept meaning to mention that. This'll strike a chord, Col:

Quote:
Down By The Water

I lost my heart, under the bridge
To that little girl, so much to me
And now I'm old, and now I holler
She'll never know just what I found

That blue eyed girl (that blue eyed girl)
She said "no more" (she said "no more")
That blue eyed girl (that blue eyed girl)
Became blue eyed whore ('came blue eyed whore)
Down by the water (down by the water)
I took her hand (I took her hand)
Just like my daughter (just like my daughter)
Won't see her again (see her again)

Oh help me jesus
Come through this storm
I had to lose her
To do her harm
I heard her holler (I heard her holler)
I heard her moan (I heard her moan)
My lovely daughter (my lovely daughter)
I took her home (I took her home)

Little fish, big fish
Swimming in the water
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter

Little fish, big fish
Swimming in the water
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter

Little fish, big fish
Swimming in the water
Come back here, man, gimme my daughter...
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 18:10   #8
Colyngbourne
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

I do think what I lacked in the book was some handy reference guide to all the Greek and German quotes. Some of the reviews on Amazon mention Faust, which would have made things a little clearer.

And yes, the whole Dennmark layer to the story was superb. The more I write about it, the more I suspect I will revise this upward to the full (Alan was too full of worshipful love for Karin for me to appreciate the manifold way that Adams tries to express this).

ETA: And I have the freedom of the City at last!!!!!!!
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 18:10   #9
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

Quote:
Originally Posted by amner View Post
I am delighted you liked this, Col. For years this would have been a red read on my list, but has probably been demoted all [sic] the way to a now.

Just popping down to amarie's desk, as I think she has it here. I'll do a p69 thing if so...hang on.


EDIT. rats, it's not here, which means it's at her house, and of course - hi amarie - she's in St Louis!
Hi amner! I'm sure it's on my desk somewhere - have you tried in the far corner where there's a pile of books with The Western Canon perched on the top? Or maybe my other desk with the PC - there's loads of stuff piled there. Or maybe the shelf next to that other desk where I've dumped a load of crap. Jesus - it could be anywhere. Sorry!
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Old 30th Aug 2006, 18:57   #10
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Default Re: The Girl in a Swing - Richard Adams

A.N. Wilson? A pompous little oik? Whatever gave you that impression?



You'll like this story then, amner: Wilson's recent biography of John Betjeman contains a letter he included which turned out to not only to be a fake, but a fake in which the initial letters of each sentence spelled out "A.N. Wilson is a shit." The letter was supplied to Wilson by 'Eve de Harben,' which crossword enthusiasts will note is an anagram of 'Ever been had?'

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