Paraic O’Donnell’s strange, tense and utterly beautiful novel The Maker of Swans will haunt you. It dances along the line between literary fiction and magical fantasy, but you’ll hardly notice. You’ll be too busy sinking deeper into its inescapable grasp.
On an estate in the English countryside live two men and a girl. One man is Eustace the butler, the guardian of the house and its daily rhythms. The other man is Mr. Crowe, a preternaturally gifted, magnanimous artist who is long past his glory days of creating wonder and beauty for aristocrats across the world. The girl is Clara, Mr. Crowe’s ward. Mute, inquisitive and able to recall any passage from any book in the library, Clara knows the house and the grounds better than anyone. This odd trio is on track to live out their lives uneventfully until one fateful night when a gunshot breaks the peace of the house: Mr. Crowe has killed a man in the driveway. Eustice, Mr. Crowe and Clara each rush to save what is important to them before the fallout from this act changes their lives forever.
To give any more details would ruin the particular spell of this book. Pasts and presents intermingle, bringing to the surface each character’s unique pain. Motivations are murky at best. Visions of swans on a lake are a surreal promise of what’s to come. This book is far more expansive than its 368 pages might suggest, and all credit goes to O’Donnell for cramming it full with as many ideas as he did. Alongside the magical elements are questions on the nature of the universe, on art and beauty, on instinct and knowledge. O’Donnell’s complex and agile prose jumps between dreamlike mysticism and terse, suspenseful action almost without warning. He knows when to expand language and when to contract it, when to throw in the kitchen sink and when to hold back.
Two key elements hold everything together. The first is how O’Donnell drives the story forward like a thriller, giving the more abstract elements a solid foundation. Even as things get stranger and stranger, the core plot is straightforward: A man was murdered, and people are coming to deliver the consequences. The relationships among the three inhabitants of the house provide the second grounding force, particularly the bond between Eustace and Clara. Their relationship is tender, reciprocal and, importantly in a book such as this, human and real in a sea of the strange and mystical.
Let The Maker of Swans invade you. Be challenged by it. Let it wash over you. If you like beautiful things, read this book.