It’s an isolated boarding school, out in the country a bit, but not the best. Stonebridge Academy students are not high achievers. They call themselves Stoners. Alex Witt, who left her last teaching job in a hurry, finds herself teaching creative writing, which is to say, mostly winging it. her firsts assignment suggests that something unpleasant is afoot here. The dead rat in a desk drawer on the first day does not phase her. Her students, however, are another matter. There’s more than a whiff of the unsavory.
With The Swallows, Lutz brings her trademark perceptive and often funny prose to do battle in what becomes a war of the sexes. Just who is fighting and why is best left to the reader to discover. In this environment, Lutz’ ability to evoke a smile from a turn of the phrase and slyly cutting repartee becomes a two-edged sword, wielded with precision. Our willingness to make light of intractable problems ensures that nearly every smile is followed by a cringe of discomfort. Credit her skill as a wily designer of plot traps as you helplessly turn the pages. Lutz brigs the obsessive to compulsive reading.
Told in round-robin style, there’s a low-key feel of Rashomon at work here. The four storytellers are nicely (un)balanced. Witt is complemented by Ford, a male teacher at the school who proves to be far more complex than we are ready to expect. Gemma is the new girl in town who does not arrive with an agenda but whips one up in short order. Norman Crowley is deeply immersed in an agenda the puts him firmly in a place he’d avoid if there was a choice. Needless to say, everybody’s plans are sabotaged by an all-too-believable reality.
Lutz is a master at cranking up tension while tamping down over-reach and overkill. The funniest and most terrible thing about The Swallows is that what happens seems sort of subdued compared to reality. But readers will know that in the thick of it, nothing feels underplayed. Lutz has a killer sense of humor, here in the service of a sort of social horror story. It’s OK to laugh so long as you are not looking in the mirror.
The real triumph of The Swallows is Lutz’s ability to keep the pages flying and the (uneasy) laughter flowing while excavating some very unpleasant truths in the most ordinary of lives. “Look at this,” she says. “Now, this,” laughing, and you laugh too. You want to, you need to, you know it will be a hoot to find out what’s at the center of the mystery.
Uh oh. A mirror.
Here’s a link to my entirely spoiler-free interview with Lisa Lutz, wherein the same humorous sensibility is deployed in the general direction of writing this sort of novel. You’ll feel like a kid, reading Highlights, fun with a purpose. NOT in the dentist’s office.