In my continuous quest to be creeped out by a smart read, I followed a recommendation by my mother, who read The Girl In A Swing years ago (first published in 1980). To this day, she shudders a little at the thought.
I started this beautifully written story with some reservations; if I could think that the end of Rosemary’s Baby was goofy, then how would this one fare? How could the celebrated author of Watership Down, Richard Adams, put a shiver up my spine? His most famous book is about bunnies. Surely this would be a disappointment.
The brilliance of this novel is in its exquisite prose, and its subtle incidents. On the surface, it struck me as a quiet story about a ceramics dealer who falls in love with a German woman. A layer deeper, you notice that cultivated and reserved Alan Desland not only falls for the stunning and wildly mysterious Käthe, he becomes utterly smitten. Her response is the same. They marry not too long after their introduction. They’re hopelessly devoted to one another, and are endlessly passionate. Käthe moves to England with Alan, and starts her new life as Mrs. Desland. She fits into his immaculately organized life like a round peg. She impresses his friends and endears herself to his family. She learns the ceramics trade with incredible speed, and eventually finds and purchases The Girl In A Swing; an old and invaluable piece that will put to rest any financial concerns the couple will ever have. A simple life, no?
Did I mention that Alan has a touch of ESP?
Did I mention that Käthe refused to be married in a church?
Did I mention that you’ll start to feel an eerie sense of danger?
Richard Adams’ writing comes close to lyrical as he details everything from the plush English landscape, to an organized family business of fine ceramics, to the fascinating characters who revolve around Alan and Käthe. It is remarkably easy to get caught up in the details of the novel, without realizing that you’re being led down a path. When the pieces start to fall together, the quaint quality of the story vanishes. Ultimately, Adams shares levels of despair and horror so profound, that the book’s entirety leaves an indelible mark on the reader.
This book is not something that should be gobbled up in one sitting. If you’re a reader who’s in a hurry, best to leave this one for now. Unless you pay close attention, you’ll miss how the story builds. You’ll miss how it brings you in, encircles you, makes you feel comfortable… and then proceeds to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand, and fill you with a sense of dread. There is no gore. There is no blood. I have no interest in today’s version of horror, where it’s more important to induce people’s gag reflexes than it is to get under their skin. This book is proudly the opposite.
Without giving any more away, I will just note that there is a scene in this book that will forever be burned into my psyche. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind forgetting it.
When I told my mother that, she laughed… because she remembered.
Parting words from Käthe Desland:
‘You heard it, didn’t you?’ she whispered. ‘You heard it?’
Well done, Mr. Adams.