Fiction – paperback; W&N; 336 pages; 2016.
The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell is a strange and wondrous novel that feels a bit like a Gothic fairytale. It is as enigmatic as all of the characters that dance across its pages.
There are four main characters, all of whom are as peculiar and intriguing as each other: the mysterious Mr Crowe, who lives in a grand manor house and belongs to a never-named secret society; his faithful manservant Eustace, who looks far younger than his years; Clara, a young mute girl under Eustace’s care, who communicates through writing and drawing; and the frightening academic Dr Chastern, who heads the secret society and is billed as “more dangerous than anyone else you will ever encounter”.
When the story opens, Eustace is woken in the dead of night by gunshots. Mr Crowe has apparently killed someone in the drive way of his manor house and it is up to Eustace to hide the evidence of the crime — not in order to prevent the police finding out but to hide it from members of the secret society to which Crowe belongs. “I know what this will bring,” warns Eustace. “Even if I do not understand it. They will come to know of it…They will find out, and they will come.”
And come “they” do in the form of Dr Chastern and his assistant Nazaire. It soon becomes clear that Clara is in danger, not least because she has special talents that only she is now beginning to understand herself, and the book morphs into a rather chilling escapade, the details of which I’ll refrain from mentioning for they will only serve to spoil the plot.
Evocative and exquisite prose
The Maker of Swans might sound a bit heavy but let me assure you it’s written in such beautiful, evocative and, indeed, rhapsodical, prose that it makes for an entirely enjoyable reading experience. And for every strange and frightening thing that happens in it, there is an exquisite overlay of clever humour to soften the impact. Take the following as an example.
Eustace hires two local labourers, the brothers Abel and John, to get rid of the car that the murder victim arrived in. He tries to emphasise the seriousness of their job and the importance of doing it correctly:
“In my master’s profession,” Eustace continued, “he has relied on a peculiar gift. There have been others like him, but only a handful remain. I’m not the judge of these things, but I have heard it said that none of the others could ever match him. Be that as it may, in using these gifts of his, Mr Crowe and those like him have been given great licence, but they have not acted entirely without restraint. Certain limits were placed on them by the — what might one call it? — by the order to which they belonged.”
“Order?” Abel said. “What, like monks or something?”
“Like monks?” Eustace considered this. “No, not like monks. I meant only that this order has survived for a long time. How long exactly I do not know. Centuries, at least. And it has grown powerful.”
“Vampires, then?” John said eagerly. “Like that film with what’s-his-name?”
“What?” Eustace looked upward and let out a long sigh. “No, nothing like that […]”
Bold fiction of the finest order
Interestingly, the author does not spell out everything that happens in this book — unusual, I would say, for a debut novelist — and while it’s written in a compelling manner, one that makes you keep turning the pages, not all the answers are revealed. You never find out the true nature of the secret society, for instance, nor Clara’s specific talents, but it’s these grey areas, these information vacuums, that lends the story its enigmatic flavour and allows the reader to come up with their own theories.
There’s a magic at the heart of The Maker of Swans, a kind of ephemeral power to its words. It’s very much a story about creativity and the way in which it can be harnessed and nurtured but it is cloaked in a Gothic-style mystery that makes it a distinctly original work of literature.
I’m looking forward to seeing what O’Donnell produces next — his second novel, The House on Vesper Sands, is due to be published early next year.