Charis Cotter’s The Swallow is set in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood in 1963 and features two young girls who, upon their first meeting, each believe the other to be a ghost. Once they manage to convince each other they are alive, the two become fast friends. Rose and Polly are neighbours whose homes back on to the Necropolis cemetery, but they could not be more different. Polly lives in a boisterous house full of siblings (both biological and fostered by her parents) and has always wanted to see a ghost. Rose, an only child, is often left alone with a creepy old housekeeper while her business-focused parents work late and travel, and has spent her life trying to ignore the ghosts she’s always been able to see.
The novel alternates between Polly’s and Rose’s first-person points of view, and Cotter ably creates their two distinct voices, each of which is appealing in its own way. Polly is relatable, flawed, and funny, while Rose is mysterious and sympathetic in her lonely (and eerie) life. The sections are very short, which is somewhat jarring in early chapters, but the structure soon fades in importance as the story takes centre stage.
This is a novel about loneliness and friendship, feeling invisible, finding your voice, and long-buried secrets. But The Swallow is never heavy-handed, and, best of all, it’s genuinely spooky. Cotter builds suspense without artificially withholding information from the reader. And for bibliophiles, the author’s subtle hat tips to favourite books are a joy. Polly and Rose’s meeting in a row-house attic, for instance, pays homage to Polly and Digory’s adventures in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, and Polly relaxes by reading one of CanLit’s first runaway hits, Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna.
Like all the best ghost stories, The Swallow tells us more about the living than the dead. As Rose says, most ghosts “are just dead people. Sad, lonely dead people.… The angry sad ones are the worst. They’re the dangerous ones.” It is a fantastic addition to Toronto literature, with all the makings of a classic.