A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling
Seattle. Amazon Crossing. 2020. 291 pages.
THE STORY OF A Single Swallow follows the lives of three men, two westerners and one Chinese, who became friends during World War II in a Chinese village. One is a priest, the other two soldiers, and they must navigate the violent and tense climate of wartime China. Their collective trauma brings them together, and they agree that even after the war, they will all meet again annually in the village on a set day. This friendship even continues beyond death, as the ghost of the priest still travels to the village each year waiting for his friends. Their past slowly begins to unfold throughout the narrative via another common aspect of their lives: meeting a young girl.
Stella, Wende, A Yan: the three men know her by three different names. They each refer to her by one of these names, claiming ownership over their version of her. Yan means “swallow,” and like a bird she flies into each man’s life and changes them forever. Her life was devastated when she experienced the violence of Japanese troops firsthand, and the priest, who is serving as the village doctor, shows her compassion and takes her in. Swallow shows great promise and intelligence, but the villagers, especially the men, see her as soiled from the attack by the Japanese and disregard her.
Themes of gender, memory, and trauma are woven throughout the narrative. At one point, all three of these men show her kindness, and their lives are forever altered. Like the men’s posthumously binding friendship, their connection with Swallow leaves such a deep impact on them, and they remember her with fondness and guilt. Ultimately, the story is not just about friendship; it is also about one woman, a single swallow, who changes the lives of three men forever.
University of California Irvine