Literature is a diverse field, blossoming with the flowers of wildly divergent creators. In WatchingSwifts, by R.J. Askew, the reader is given a rare bloom; something both tough and beautiful.
This was my first read on my iPad and it proved a worthy initiation for that device. I found myself drawn into the narrative by the contrasts. This is the story of one man’s life as it collides with a stranger in a public place and finds an unexpected outlet. Tom is anything but an ordinary guy; his confidant is a burnt out war photographer publishing a book of her pictures from war zones. Their initial contact flows from their visual appreciation of the world: she takes photographs; he draws. And he draws her as she sits at a table in Kew as he serves tourists with ice cream.
We learn, in broken passages, the story of his extraordinary life and we’re presented with ideas of what it is to live outside normal society. There is much stream of consciousness, delivered in a gritty, realistic style but interspersed with the language of a modern day Shakespeare. The short pieces of poetry, spoken by the man for the woman’s benefit, hint at a growing love; a love both deep and likely to be unfulfilled.
The swifts of the title are those magical birds that live on the wing, landing only to nest. And they are Tom’s obsession. But the narrative uses them as metaphors, as carriers of deep emotion, as symbols of the soaring wants of ordinary people. They are also, tragically, potential victims of those without the soul to see their life song.
Emma introduces and ends the story; a romance, a tragedy, a biography, a parable. But it is Tom whose voice we hear most of the time. An enigma at the start, he develops into someone complex, honest, vital, real. And Parker, well, we all have to bear a Parker in our lives, unfortunately. Though this one has more depth than most.
This is literary fiction at its best. Accessible yet full of analogy, metaphor, symbol and subsurface meaning. Unusually for a contemporary example of the genre, there is an actual story and the people are as real as your brother, mother, girlfriend, dad.
There is death here; life, love, passion, hatred, violence, Nature at her best and worst, humour, compassion and perhaps a touch of madness. This is a story that lives on the page and delves under the reader’s skin to tell its tale. I cannot think of a comparable work, but if you enjoy fiction that lives, characters who are real and have real problems to solve and real lives to lead, and superb, flowing, apposite language, then you’ll love this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and recommend it without reservation.