Forgotten Books: Swann

Patti Abbott’s Forgotten Books project has been creating a stir in the crime fiction blogosphere. I hope it’s also creating a stir in crime fiction bookstores while readers hungry for lost literary treasures thunder to their favorite vendor in order to find the books they’ve been reading about. (Remember: thunder. That’s how we roll.)

At the end of April when it all began Patti, ever succinct, summed the project up in this way:
I have asked several people to help me by also remembering a favorite book. Their blog sites are listed below. I also asked each of them to tag someone to recommend a book for next Friday. I'm worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next.
So when Patti asked me, I of course said yes, because it’s a very cool idea: this rediscovery of books that have, in a way, been lost. But it’s also such a difficult question because, really, I don’t think it’s possible for any wonderful book to be truly forgotten. By everyone. We don’t just read the books we love. We take them into our hearts. They set up an echoey place in there. It resonates, that place. It speaks to us. And wherever we are in our lives -- whether we realize it or not -- we remember.

So, for me, the forgotten books I’ve read aren’t forgotten at all. They’re in there someplace. Resonating. Taking up their space. But I have to sift through them, examine a bit, and see which of those are ones that you might not have read. It’s hard, but pleasurable, as well. Because the search for my own “forgotten book” has brought me back to several books I loved, books that have been resonating away quietly. And now I have to choose just one and hope that my choice will strike a chord with you -- will resonate -- and will send you on your own journey.

It’s quite a responsibility.

So, OK, enough of that. I choose Swann by the American-born Canadian Carol Shields, the only author to have ever won both the Governor General’s Award and the Pulitzer Prize. (For 1993’s The Stone Diaries.)

I choose Swann because, not only is it the late Shields’ only mystery, there’s even a mystery about the book being a mystery. And it’s wonderful, did I mention that? It’s a book that must be read.

First published in Canada in 1987, when it came out in the United States in 1989, Publishers Weekly claimed to be relieved that Vintage had rescued the book from Mysterydom: “Viking has wisely decided not to publish this fascinating novel as a mystery, as it was designated in Canada, where it earned excellent reviews. While two (rather bland) mysteries animate the plot, the book’s considerable impact is as a combination of psychological novel and satirical comedy of manners that wittily dissects the pretensions of academia.”

Wisely or not, Swann is a mystery. People get dead. Things disappear. Plus it was originally published as Swann: A Mystery. (There’s a clue.) And it won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel (Canada’s highest mystery award) in 1988. So… you know… the only real mystery about any of that was why PW was so relieved in the first place.

And even though PW managed to make the book sound incredibly missable (“In the end, Swann’s life remains unknowable, though by now completely altered by her devotees’ speculation and obfuscation. Adroitly illuminating the chasm between appearance and reality, this intelligent, provocative novel is sure to pique readers’ interest in Shields’s earlier work…” blah, blah, blah. Is it even legal to use the words “devotee,” “speculation” and “obfuscation” in the same sentence? I don’t think so.) it’s a warm and wonderful book. Swann is at times gently funny -- even satirical -- despite the dark subject matter.

And how dark? Well, not that dark, certainly, but neither would anyone go around calling it a cozy. Before the book begins, a poet -- Mary Swann -- has been brutally murdered by her husband just hours after she had shown her poems to someone who instantly recognized her talent. After her death, her poems were published and have brought her a great deal of fame, unfortunately too late for it to do her much good. That’s just about where we get on.

For a while in Swann, four people examine what little is known of the dead poet’s life and try to piece together who she was through her work. In an amazing twist -- and an awe-inspiring sleight of hand by the author -- the few available pieces of Mary Swann’s life begin to disappear, leaving her fans with nothing but their own ideas of who this woman was, or even if she was.

Swann is breathtaking. An incredible achievement. It is what is meant, I think, when someone uses the word “transcend” and points it in the direction of a mystery. Swann transcends in that, while it is certainly a mystery, it speaks to people where they read it. And it holds us up to ourselves, in a way; it offers a mirror up to our human foibles and pretensions and, in the end, we can’t help but laugh.

You can tell I kinda, sorta like it, yes?

And because part of this gig is passing it on, I look now to Clea Simon. I hope she has as much fun rediscovering her forgotten book as I did.


Linda-Thanks for a wonderful review and Carol Shields is one of my favorite writers. What a tragedy to lose here so early. Even Larry's Party is an amazing book, but this and Happenstance are my favorites.
Thanks, Patti! I must admit: I was hoping to stump you. I shoulda known better. And thanks again for the invite: it really was fun.
Clea Simon said…
Thanks to both of you for starting this project and, Linda, for tagging me. The only problem I see during the next week is winnowing the pile of candidates to just one...

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