Book Review: The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)

August 13th, 2019 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to fight. That’s not the world I live in.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review though Netgalley. Trigger warning for misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, and suicide.)

“When I look at what the editors have written about us, I have to wonder how they see us. Do you know what I mean?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Like, are we even human?”

“I would cut off the penis of any man who talk about me like this,” said my mother, as she gazed down at a score sheet. “You know what I would like to see? A bad-blowjob contest. That would teach them.”

Gemma and Mel, who had seemed so lost, suddenly looked up at Mom like she was their new queen.

I remember the first time I saw them. They were walking down the hall together. Bald, proud, angry. The boys didn’t laugh when they saw them. They’d never been quieter. You could feel their fear. The girls didn’t look like girls anymore. They looked like warriors.

Come to think of it, Witt herself was like an inkblot test. Everyone saw something different.

Forced to leave her previous job at “plummy” Warren Prep after a male student-turned-stalker secretly videotaped her engaged in a totally adult, totally consensual sex act, Alex Witt finds herself teaching English lit (well, creative writing) at second-tier Stonebridge Academy (though she draws the line at fencing). Given all the slut shaming and unearned scrutiny that she’s already weathered, it’s no surprise that Alex keeps to herself, playing house in an abandoned cottage in the forest and only doing the bare minimum, course-wise. However, all this changes when an anonymous, introductory writing assignment – something of a tradition in her classes – elicits some strange responses.

Repeated references to the Darkroom (and a shared distaste for BJs) compel Witt to dig deeper – as do the cryptic notes left in her cabin; the rumors half-whispered by fellow faculty and staff; and a seemingly nonconsenual sex act Witt witnesses in the bathhouse. As Witt and the teenage girls/warriors she inspires turn over the rock that is Stonebridge Academy, exposing the rape culture that lurks underneath, the so-called “gender war” escalates, ultimately leaving two dead in its wake.

So here’s the deal. Is the plot of The Swallows a little outlandish? Maybe. Not in substance, but perhaps scope. The Ten, the Darkroom, the Dulcinea award? Totally believable. The victim blaming, rape apologism, and institutional cover-up of sexual assault? Abso-fucking-tootly. Granted, the lack of adult supervision is a bit shocking at times, and the extent to which the conflict escalates here can generously be described as unusual. But is it unheard of? Spare a thought (and perhaps a triumphant fist pump) for the Greek woman who doused a British man’s genitals in liquor and then set them on fire after he sexually assaulted her in a bar. Suddenly jalapeño blowjobs and Molotov cocktails don’t seem so ridiculous.

If anything, the heights (or depths, depending on your POV) the swallows go to enact their revenge is a cautionary tale: this is what happens when adults, when those in charge, when our authorities and institutions and culture fail to take misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape seriously. When the marginalized are forced to find their own justice, outside of the bounds of the law and cultural norms. When those who are taught to silence their voices, to tamp down their righteous anger, finally explode like so many powder kegs. Things get really fucking ugly. In this way, The Swallows is wildly successful.

It feels really reductive to call this a tale about “gender wars,” though. This is a fight against rape culture, full stop. Some of the girls lean in to the misogyny, while some of the guys work to subvert it. You do what you’ve got to: to survive, or to sleep at night.

Also, The Swallows is a damn engaging story. Lutz’s writing is feminist and empowering but also makes for a great, twisty, edge-of-your-seat thriller. The characters – even the sleazy ones; see, e.g., Finn Ford and Leonard Witt – are interesting and multidimensional. Alex is pretty rad but her mother Nastya is in a whole ‘nother stratosphere of badassery. The scenes where Witt creates – and then Nastya revises – the “blowchart” are exquisite.

I’m even a little tempted to get my own axe tattoo.

Of all the characters in The Swallows, Nastya is most deserving of her own spinoff story.

I also loved the multiple POVs: Lutz tells the story from the alternating perspectives of Alex Witt (the instigator), Gemma Russo (the resistance fighter), Norman Crowley (the defector), and Mr. Ford (the editors, all grown up), sometimes revisiting a specific event from different perspectives. This technique adds depth and nuance to the narrative…but mostly it’s just cool AF, such as when the girls shave their heads. The differently-gendered reactions to the unveiling straight up gave me goosebumps.

Even though The Swallows requires some suspension of disbelief, the need is not terribly great, and that’s what should scare you most. As a reader, as a woman, as a human being.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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One Response to “Book Review: The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (2019)”

  1. K.C. Davis Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your remarks. I am a library employee and am extremely fortunate to have access to numerous material covering a multitude of genres. This book in particular was well constructed, witty, and clever. Besides that, the message was loud and clear. I recently interviewed for a full time position within my own library. When asked to review a book I recently read and enjoy, I used this book as an example. When I did not get the job, I asked one of the administrative librarians what interview techniques I could improve on. She told me next time I am asked to review a book, I should pick one less inappropriate!!! Your review speaks volumes to the limited, close minded, and dismissive mentality surrounding our current culture. Thank you again for a well crafted review.

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