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Having read this book and not loved it in the same way as many other reviewers, I feel rather guilty. I do like it and I think that the story is fascinating. It is brutal in places and often tragic. The biggest tragedies are the words that were never spoken by the main characters, which have been regretted ever since. This is a recurring theme throughout the book and clearly demonstrates that opportunities should usually be seized at the time that they arrive rather than thought about for many years to come.
The three main strands of the story are narrated by a Chinese soldier, an American pastor and an American military instructor. These characters, whilst sharing a celebratory drink on VJ day promise to return, as ghosts, to the village which pulled them together, on the anniversary of that day after their deaths. Eventually, they hope, they will meet up and reminisce. On the face of it, that’s a very clever device to enable the telling of a story from three individual points of view. But, for me, it failed.
The pastor, who is also a doctor, dies soon after the end of the war, before he can even make it back to the States. The Chinese soldier dies a few decades on. The military instructor dies at the age of 92, by which time the other two ghosts have grown impatient and angry that they have had to wait so long.
The strands of the story bear authenticity and match other accounts that I have read from the same region and period. They reveal great details and feelings which tug at my heartstrings. The binding force is Swallow, a local girl with whom each of the three main characters form differing relationships. Not only do they perceive her differently, but they each have different names for her. She is key to the development of the story from the beginning right through to the very end.
A three-star rating means that I liked the book and that I would recommend it.
So, why didn’t I rate it higher?
Ask yourselves this question. If old friends and comrades met up, even as ghosts, after many years of separation, would they sit and narrate their part of the story for hours on end without interruption? Of course not. They’d have animated conversations with many interruptions for questions and disagreements. I’ve attended many reunions and they are always filled with multiple chatter as we merrily and sometimes forlornly reminisce. Each of these characters is permitted to speak for tens of pages of the book at a time. It is impossible. That disappoints me.
Then there is an element of ridiculous. Two dogs, who played a central role in the lives of all four main characters, including the Swallow, get together for a reminisce of their own. That would be OK as it stands and would be rather entertaining. However, not only are these two dogs trilingual, speaking Mandarin, English and Dog, they are very intellectual in their language and descriptions and they are wonderful philosophers, probably more so than their human masters. They are also mind-readers. They relate the thoughts of the humans and one of them can even read a thermometer and understand the magnitude and meaning of the patient’s temperature. Although these aspects distracted me from the amazing stories, I would still highly recommend the book to you.
Read it. I look forward to hearing your own opinions.
‘Facing death is a form of bravery, but so is facing life.’
On the day of the Jewel Voice Broadcast in 1945, in which Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender to the Allied forces, bringing an end to World War II, three men, make a pact. Now, seventy years later, the pledge is being fulfilled by American missionary Pastor Billy, gunner's mate Ian Ferguson, and local soldier Liu Zhaohu. However, they are all dead and it’s their souls that are at this reunion.
Once you get past this initial revelation the story is quite conventional, apart from the fact that part of the story is also told by the souls of two dogs, Ghost and Millie.
The story is set in an isolated village in southern China during World War II. It is told by three men who have nothing in common except for their love of Ah Yan, the sparrow. Each of the men has a different name for her, Ian Ferguson calls her Wende, Pastor Billy calls her Stella and Liu Zhaohu refers to her as Ah Yan, which by the way is still not her correct name.
Despite the unconventional way the story is told Zhang Ling does a masterful job of weaving the magical with the realism. There are some harrowing scenes as the brutality of World War II impacts on the lives of the people in this remote village. Interesting too is that the main focus of this story, Ah Yan, does not narrated any of it. We don’t get to hear her point of view at all. This enhances the fact that she has little say in her own destiny and in the end she can’t even tell her own story, she has no voice.
A Single Sparrow is a story of lost love, missed opportunities and regrets. But more importantly it’s the story of one woman’s selflessness no matter what the cost. As Liu Zhaohu points out, ’We entered her life at different stages and all led her to the summit of hope, then left her in our own unique ways, letting her fall into the valley of despair to face life’s storms and clean up the aftermath on her own.’
At times A Single Swallow can be a difficult read. Due partly to the different points of view and also the different names each of the characters has. But in the end it’s worth it. A good story, if not a great one, but a story with a powerful message.
Well written, lovely story but it is also strange. It starts of by being narrated by a spirit then his spirit friends join him once they die and they talk about their pasts which all connect around one woman. At one point the dog also talks to the spirit of her dead dog partner. I couldnt put it down though and the story does flow well once you get into it. Worth reading even just for the strange factor.
Difficult, dark, sometimes dreadful but this dirge is wonderful at times, filled with little whims and peculiar regrets. Those notions, those simple eulogies, the ephemeral nature of the tale is the only thing that keeps it going as it would be churlish and dross otherwise. I think that you will have to convince your self that this is good. I am unconvinced (other than some well worked passages) still worth a read.
Am very pleased to have read the book. A narrative from 4 people about a relatively short period of time during WW2 when their paths crossed and they interacted with each other; how each responded to the others and how each of them felt about that interaction and its bearing on their lives.
A strange tale that at the end is like the smoke of a blown out candle that disappears before your eyes. At times the descriptive language is beautiful and the imagery delicate ,fragile even. But it never quite seems to arrive at a destination.
Telling the life story of a woman from the perspective of three men is rather odd. It just about worked. The history was interesting. She could have made more of that. I disliked the “you” chapters. Also the emotionally intelligent dogs. Some of the metaphors were wonderful, but others missed the mark.
good story but i struggled with the way it was written. found the descriptions bizzare as well as a the chapter with two dogs speaking to one another. clever but not for me. I would say stick with it if you start it and think this is not what i thought or its not for me, as the storyline is worth it.