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Swallow

by Theanna Bischoff

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. Borrowing from the well-known children’s nursery rhyme, the opening lines of Theanna Bischoff’s second novel introduce a metaphor that unfolds as the story does. Darcy, a Toronto native who grew up with an absent father and unfit mother, has been forced to act in loco parentis for her younger sister, Carly. When Carly commits suicide at 19, Darcy, who has fled to Calgary to pursue a teaching degree, is left to sift through childhood memories in an attempt to puzzle out the reason for Carly’s death.

As in her first novel (2008’s Cleavage), Bischoff (who holds a masters degree in educational psychology) draws on her professional knowledge, this time tackling darker material. What starts off somewhat slowly unfolds into a beautiful tale of sisterhood and familial bonds, with the tender moments and harsh conflicts of real life rendered all the more believable by the author’s ability to craft strong dialogue.

The nursery rhyme excerpts at the start of each chapter mirror Darcy’s life, which becomes increasingly complex as she attempts to distance herself from the turmoil of her childhood. The metaphor finds its apogee in the numbing period following Carly’s suicide, when Darcy admits that she has “swallowed” all of her feelings.

The narrative flips between Darcy’s past and present, revealing the important moments in her life through spare prose and stripped-down sentences. Darcy’s memories include intrusions from her mother and cruel stepfather, both of whom act in uncaring (and sometimes frankly unbelievable) ways. In the end, however, Bischoff’s well-developed characters resonate after the book is finished, as does her sensitive portrait of unfailing love between sisters.