A Single Swallow

Written by Zhang Ling
Review by Thomas j. Howley

On the day the Japanese emperor announces his nation’s surrender to the Allied forces, three quite different men, in the unbridled exaltation of the moment, make a pact for their souls to return to a small Chinese village each year on that same day. This otherwise inconsequential location is the base of operations for the three men as they support the Chinese resistance against the occupiers. They are Pastor Billy, a missionary; Ian Ferguson, US Navy gunner’s mate; and local Chinese patriot, Liu Zhaohu. As the story evolves over the next seventy years, these men, both ghostly and mortal, realize the centrality of the key figure in their lives – a tragic but noble girl named Ah Yan or Swallow.

This book sounded intriguing because of its unique premise of ghostly rendezvous among soldiers, combined with first loves for all three men. The result was all that and more. The gifted author captures the hideous atrocities of the Japanese against non-combatants along with the subsequent horror of Chinese Communist savagery against its own people. It is a literary work suffused with prodigious and descriptive exposition. The novel charmingly includes sweet little stories ironically embedded in an often violent milieu. An unlikely but quite enjoyable example is the discussion between two beloved dogs who love each other and the main characters they serve – from the dogs’ perspective.

Clever use of newspaper accounts, military reports and letters to loved ones advance the plot and complement the dialogue effectively and interestingly. The Chinese culture of the time seems sometimes primitive and sometimes highly advanced in the eyes of the Westerners. This superb novel greatly exceeded my expectations and comes highly recommended.