Title: The Swallows
Author: Lisa Lutz
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 13 2019
Hardcover: 368 pages
What do you love? What do you hate? What do you want?
It starts with this simple writing prompt from Alex Witt, Stonebridge Academy’s new creative writing teacher. When the students’ answers raise disturbing questions of their own, Ms. Witt knows there’s more going on the school than the faculty wants to see. She soon learns about The Ten–the students at the top of the school’s social hierarchy–as well as their connection to something called The Darkroom.
Ms. Witt can’t remain a passive observer. She finds the few girls who’ve started to question the school’s “boys will be boys” attitude and incites a resistance that quickly becomes a movement. But just as it gains momentum, she also attracts the attention of an unknown enemy who knows a little too much about her–including what brought her to Stonebridge in the first place.
Meanwhile, Gemma, a defiant senior, has been plotting her attack for years, waiting for the right moment. Shy loner Norman hates his role in the Darkroom, but can’t find the courage to fight back until he makes an unlikely alliance. And then there’s Finn Ford, an English teacher with a shady reputation who keeps one eye on his literary ambitions and one on Ms. Witt.
As the school’s secrets begin to trickle out, a boys-versus-girls skirmish turns into an all-out war, with deeply personal–and potentially fatal–consequences for everyone involved. Lisa Lutz’s blistering, timely tale shows us what can happen when silence wins out over decency for too long–and why the scariest threat of all might be the idea that sooner or later, girls will be girls.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from publisher
Format (e- or p-): ebook
I quite liked The Swallows by Lisa Lutz. Taking place at Stonebridge Academy, a co-ed boarding school the story primarily follows Alex Witt, a new creative writing teacher as she navigates the complex lives of her new students.
Through anonymous writing exercises, Alex discovers dark secrets are afoot – there is something called The Darkroom, which is ran by male students as well as a scored competition that seems to revolve around which girl gives the best blowjob. Everything around this is as bad as it sounds: rape culture, abuse and the objectification of girls and as such, Alex is determined to make it stop. But the more she learns, the more she sees the problems go deeper into the institution than she initially thought, with a classic case of ingrained privileges, historical mishandling of the situation and an ongoing thread of silence, systemic abuse, blackmail and exploitation disguised as “tradition”. “Boys will be boys” is not going to cut it anymore.
She is not alone though: there are male and female students who are fed up with the system and at least one other teacher who truly cares (while the others pretend they don’t know what is going on).
There are other characters sharing Alex’s viewpoint narrative including Gemma, a senior student who has been plotting to take down the Darkroom for ages and who works with Alex to bring them down; Norman, a bullied student who hates the system but is also a part of it, struggling to find the courage to break away; and Finn Ford, an English teacher, whose internal voice is full of an awful misogyny and his horrendous douchebaggery made me want to punch things. Primarily his face.
The story opens with us knowing something has gone wrong and someone is dead – and as the story goes back in the past we follow a tense build-up that slowly unfolds to unveil its mysteries. Gemma ends up leading a group of girls who find support in each other and who decide to face the boys who are responsible for the Darkroom. In many ways, this is a tale of female empowerment and straightforward revenge but the book also thoughtfully delves into the questions of responsibility and accountability, specially with regards to the adults who should be taking better care of these kids.
Although there is a somewhat disappointing storyline that involves one of the boys’ leaders who ends up being a straight up sociopath, this by no means remove the importance of examining systemic rape culture and how it can in fact, elevate and enable these sociopaths. We see this with serial killers all the time. The true scary thing is how non-sociopaths end up participating in these horrendous crimes too.
A timely, topical mystery novel.
Rating: 7 – Very good