Book Review

Anna Kovatcheva’s chapbook The White Swallow begins with a midwife, a stillbirth, and a white swallow. Based on a traditional figure in Bulgarian folklore (“the sight of which can cure the sick and heal the injured”), this magical bird enters the body of the dead infant and brings her back to life. The child, Zina, grows to be a sickly girl. She has no heartbeat, only “the rustling sound of wings” in her chest. At twelve, she discovers she has a gift for healing, though she insists it’s the bird’s gift, not hers. Zina also has a tremendous imagination though—again—she insists it’s the bird’s imagination, not hers. She tells stories about “fantastical dreams, full of impossible things.” One of her stories begins, “once upon a time,” and ends, “there was a long winter of cold and hardship but they survived it together.”

The White Swallow isn’t a retelling or adaptation of a particular folktale, though its traditional elements can lull one into reading it that way. It takes place in a small village in another century. Zina is the beekeeper’s daughter, and early on it seems there’s something magical about her because the bees don’t sting her. The butcher’s daughter, Hrista, has no special powers, but is beautiful and therefore loved by all. A boy marked by his clubfoot and uncertain parentage is shunned by everyone except the midwife and the two girls, which in a traditional folktale would prove their goodness and his worth. In The White Swallow, it places him at a distance, just far enough outside the story to be the narrator:

Albena the midwife was the oldest woman in the village. As long as I’d known her, the skin of her face had been puckered like a dried fig’s. She had witnessed all of their births. She was called, of course, when the beekeeper’s wife broke water.

Albena didn’t witness the narrator’s birth. All he knows of his history is what she can tell him, that he was taken from a band of nomads as they were “run down the road.” Albena has taken him in and apprenticed him because no one else will. The villagers don’t trust him, but they trust Albena. That’s why, the narrator tells us, he’s allowed to play with Hrista, although he says, “her father always greeted me with narrowed eyes and a cleaver in hand, making sure I never forgot my place.”

And what is his place? It seems to shift and change, depending on how much we trust what he tells us. It’s easy to forget that this is his version, because much of it reads like a tale passed down through generations, that has settled into its rhythms with repeated telling. The language is compressed, carefully wrought, every sentence doing the work of many:

The cat made a noise, and a noise came from the cat. Not its pained whine, but something sharper. Zina bent closer.

It has nothing to do with you! the butcher’s girl yelled.

Zina shut her eyes. The noise was louder than the girl, louder than the birds in the trees. A shrill whistling, a sound with rough edges—coming not from the cat’s mouth but inside.

The narrator relates the girls’ story in exquisite detail but sometimes the perspective is confusing. He admits that he wasn’t actually there the day of the cat, and says, “Hrista told the story so often I thought I remembered it, right down to the gravel road bruising my knees.” Other times, only his use of “they” rather than “we” suggests he wasn’t there. The many omissions are all his—we never learn his name, for example, and he’s rarely direct in expressing his feelings about others, or their feelings about him. “I meant something to them,” he says of Hrista and Zina, “though I meant nothing to the village.” Another time, he observes, “it was always startling when they remembered I was with them.” One has to scrutinize every gesture, every exchange—again, filtered through him. He seems at once to witness and embellish, so the reader can never be quite sure how much to believe.

Belief plays a large role in this story. The villagers are quick to declare something “impossible” if it goes against their beliefs, despite what they see with their own eyes. They misconstrue magic and love, their own motives and those of others. Watching them move through the story is like watching the bees go about their work, as Zina describes it to Hrista:

It looks so disorganized at first. But if you watch it for a long time, you start to see a pattern. They’re all doing something. It’s very precise.

Each time I re-read these forty-one pages (and yes, this brief book merits repeated readings), I see more patterns in the detail, more precision in the language, and a sure-handed style that tells me Anna Kovatcheva is a writer well worth watching.

About the Reviewer

Anne McDuffie writes poetry, essays and book reviews. Recent work has appeared in The Seattle Review of Books and is forthcoming in Raven Chronicles.