Arthur Ellis Best Crime Novel Award Winner: A “funny, poignant, surprising” (Margaret Atwood) literary detective story centering around a murdered poet.
Who is Mary Swann?
In this novel of a writer’s revenge, an uneducated farmer’s wife delivers a paper bag filled with scraps of her poems to the publisher of a small press. Hours later, she’s dead, murdered by her husband. Fifteen years on, her book of one hundred twenty-five poems—Mary Swann’s sole claim to fame—is discovered by an American academic. And a literary odyssey begins.
Four narrators—Sarah Maloney, a feminist writer; Frederic Cruzzi, an editor; Morton Jimroy, a biographer; and Rose Hindmarch, Mary’s only friend—all have a stake in the deceased poet’s work. Their chorus of voicesopens a fascinating window on what constitutes genius. As the four descend into a quagmire of ego, jealousy, and backstabbing, Mary Swann comes back to life—in the minds and hearts of those who love and hate her most. Full of mischief, Swann is a novel about life, death, and the ideas that live on after us.
Viking has wisely decided not to publish this fascinating novel as a mystery, as it was designated in Canada, where it earned excellent reviews. While two (rather bland) mysteries animate the plot, the book's considerable impact is as a combination of psychological novel and satirical comedy of manners that wittily dissects the pretensions of academia. The titular Mary Swann was murdered on the very day she had shown her poems to a publisher who recognized her talent. Fifteen years after her death, a symposium is to take place; the story focuses on four people who will attend: a ferociously engagee feminist scholar who ``rediscovered'' Swann's poetry, a misanthropic biographer committed to writing about Swann, a silly spinster librarian in the tiny town near Swann's home and the gruff but kindly publisher who issued her works in a limited edition. Each commands a section of the narrative and, in cool, witty prose, Shields artfully conveys their personalities, as well as the distortions each has made, for their own reasons, in Swann's life and work. (Meanwhile, however, a thief is systematically stealing every extant copy of her book.) In the end, Swann's life remains unknowable, though by now completely altered by her devotees' speculation and obfuscation. Adroitly illuminating the chasm between appearance and reality, this intelligent, provocative novel is sure to pique readers' interest in Shields's earlier work, Various Miracles , just reissued by Penguin.