I was lucky enough to request and be approved to read an early copy of this on netgalley in exchange for an honest review, but will be buying the finished copy too! All views and opinions are my own.
The Swallows Flight by Hilary McKay, cover art by Dawn Cooper, published by Macmillan
Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War shot into my favourite books ever when I read it back in 2018, so I was incredibly excited to hear there’d be a follow up, and even more thrilled to be able to read an advance copy on netgalley.
Let me tell you now – it has more than earned a place alongside Skylarks in my all time faves, being every bit as wonderful, and has cemented my opinion of Hilary McKay as one of my most highly-rated writers for children today.
So much of my feelings about Swallows echo those I had about Skylarks, with much of what I wrote there standing true for this book also.
And, somewhat inevitably, there will be many comparisons and parallels drawn between the two as I write this review as I loved the way the books link and follow on from each other.
Written as a companion novel to Skylarks, The Swallows’ Flight could easily be read without having read the former. However, I’d urge anyone planning to read Swallows to first read Skylarks; not only because it’s an absolutely outstanding book, but also because it really does add to Swallows to have read it.
It’s in the little references to past events, in the clever parallels and symbolism in the writing and, of course, in the characters.
We see several familiar characters return (later in life) alongside their families and I absolutely loved being able to rejoin some of the characters who I felt I’d got to know so well and who brought me so much joy to read in Skylarks.
I don’t know how much of a spoiler it is to say who reappears, so I’ll keep my lips tightly sealed other than to say that Grandfather in particular was the absolute star of the show here for me. His dry wit, stubbornness and, yes, his penchant for a drink allow for some wonderful comic moments (if these books ever became films and he wasn’t played by Richard E Grant it’d be an outrage).
But he also made for a very thought-provoking character, as I reflected on Skylarks as I read. And interestingly, it was him that helped other characters develop in some ways too, notably Kate, one of the new faces in the family and another of my favourite characters.
There’s a feel of I Capture the Castle’s Cassandra as she quietly notes down all her family and friends’ comings and goings, seemingly from the sidelines, as she is repeatedly overlooked and underestimated. But she’s stronger than she seems and I loved seeing her blossom in this.
I also loved her younger brother Charlie and new friend Ruby Amaryllis (and the story behind her birth and naming which was pitch-perfect for what we know of her mum already and for what we see of Ruby herself as she grows).
In fact it’s safe to say that all of the characters are an absolute joy to read; Hilary McKay is a writer who understands family dynamics and can bring her characters to life like no other. As in Skylarks, it is their depth and credibility their relationships and growth and our investment in them that really makes the book.
With Skylarks set around the First World War, Swallows takes us to a Europe on the brink of war once more, as World War Two approaches.
And this leads us to two more new characters I loved – Hans and Erik. They are an absolutely adorable double act, best friends with grand plans to run the zoo and nearby coffee stall. They are a delight to read – warm and loving and with that true spirit of carefree youth – and they complement the rest of the cast of characters superbly.
And, of course, they’re German.
I love the way that Swallows not only uses the multiple perspectives Skylarks does, but also the way it switches between Hans and Erik in Berlin and the families in England.
It created such tension and really added something to the way we see the war, encouraging the reader to consider it from all angles and helped us to learn more about its effects on ‘both sides’, with everyone just ‘doing what they can’.
As with Skylarks, this at no point shies away from the uncertainties and tragedies of war, nor its staggering, inconceivable scenes and events (Dunkirk for example), but they are always written about with such incredible deftness and sensitivity; its almost understated in its approach and hits so much harder because of it.
Quietly powerful, perceptive, funny and full of heart, this is a book to savour and to treasure.
As soon as its out (27th May – get it ordered!) it will be joining Skylarks on my shelf as a book that I will turn to for comfort, for escape…and for a chance to spend time once more with characters who now feel like old friends.