The Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter

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swallowThe Swallow: A Ghost Story by Charis Cotter
Tundra Books, 2014
Cybil Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Finalist

Rose and Polly live next door to each other and opposite a cemetery in Toronto, 1963. Polly feels invisible as her parents take in more foster children and ignore her needs; Rose feels invisible as her parents are always away working and she only has the company of a crotchety old housekeeper. Polly is fascinated with the idea of ghosts; Rose is tortured by seeing ghosts everywhere. And then they meet up and for the first time, each of them has a friend, but their friendship is threatened by a mystery rooted in Rose’s house.

This is a truly atmospheric book – the author has created an eerie, uneasy mood as the two isolated girls take alternating (very short) chapters to tell their version of their friendship. I found it uncomfortable rather than scary, but to a younger reader it might actually be quite chilling.

Cooper has done a solid job with Polly and Rose – the girls are opposites in some ways: Polly is ebullient and full of derring do; Rose is reflective and cautious, but they share their loneliness and their longing for a  connection with their families. The support characters are few: Polly’s twin brothers, the Horrors, are the best developed – fierce and loyal; Winnie, a ghost, is rather a cliche of a haunted girl who wants to be released. The parents are mostly offstage and don’t really feel like more than stock characters.

The pacing is very slow to begin with as the author builds up the mystery and mood, but takes off once the girls start investigating the mystery and the final section is dramatic and moving.

However, (spoiler alert) there is a huge twist at the end which just doesn’t make sense and feels like a cheat. There are some clues, but we are misled, and some significant information is withheld from the reader, making it impossible to work out for yourself what’s going on.

This is an unusual book, with a terrific atmosphere and will appeal to middle graders who like off the beaten track ghost stories.

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