Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2021

As Swallows Fly, by L.P. McMahon

It was serendipity at the library that led me to this debut novel… that, and blurbs from three authors whose opinions I take seriously:

‘Intuitive and visceral and sharp as a scalpel.  Malika will claim a chunk of your heart.’ Kristina Olsson
‘McMahon’s rare insight and empathy make As Swallows Fly an unforgettable, compelling story of hope.’ Toni Jordan
‘A powerful, poignant and thought-provoking novel featuring an unforgettable character in Kate.  As Swallows Fly is a remarkable achievement by a debut author!’

Yes.  I agree.  And I would add, that it’s rare to find a story of hope that isn’t sentimental or nostalgic or naïve.   As Swallows Fly is firmly grounded in reality but it’s perfect for all those readers who are tired of the current onslaught of depressing books.

This is a story of two worlds that intersect when Malika, a teenage girl gifted in mathematics is brutally attacked because she dares to offer education to the other girls in her Pakistani village.  To protect her life and to give her educational opportunities not available in Pakistan, she is evacuated to a boarding school in Melbourne, where she is nominally under the reluctant short-term care of Dr Kate Davenport, a successful plastic surgeon.

The network of Catholic priests who set up the evacuation is sketched only lightly; they are not the focus of the story though it’s important to join the dots to understand the risk to Malika—whose circumstances are not unlike those of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by a Pakistani gunman in an attempt to curtail her activism for the education of girls.  Two of these priests go missing in the badlands of north-western Pakistan, and the third risks his own life to go and look for them.  Although he must have entertained hopes about it, Father Mike does not suggest to Doctor Kate that she might be able to help reconstruct Malika’s ruined face, and she does not know anything about it until Malika eventually chooses to remove the veil that covers all but her eyes.  Malika does not know Kate’s profession until she accompanies Kate to her Saturday appointments.

‘Do you fix all these people? Malika asked.

‘I operate on many of them,’ she said, ‘to try and fix what’s gone wrong.’

‘That is a good thing,’ Malika replied. She turned her head and gazed out of the window.  ‘It is different in my village.’

‘What happens there?’

‘In the village we must live with what happens.  Even when it is very wrong.’ (p.168)

It is only after some weeks when they have had terrible news from Pakistan that Malika’s calm acceptance wavers:

They didn’t speak in the car.  At the house, Malika went to her room and closed the door.  Kate waited in the lounge for a while, pacing up and down and eyeing Malika’s door.  She hoped she would reappear, but there was no sign of her, no sound.  She decided it was better to leave her: she would emerge when she was ready, even if that wasn’t until morning.

She was watching TV when she heard the door open again, quietly—like a secret whispered.  It closed again and there was silence.  Kate found herself listening acutely, feeling rather than hearing the presence behind her.

‘You fix things, Dr Kate,’ said Malika.  You fix things very well.’ Her inhalation was loud. ‘Can you fix this?’

Kate turned.  In the doorway, Malika was standing with her head raised, her veil and hijab gone. She met Kate’s eyes, her face clear beneath the glare of the downlights.  The remote control fell from Kate’s hand. (p.184)

Readers expecting the predictable miracle of genre fiction will be disappointed.  Kate is a flawed human being, overworked and harried by demands coming at her from all directions.  Miracles are rare, and the surgeons in Islamabad are accorded the respect they deserve by this author: they have done the best that could be done without risking Malika’s life.  As one of the characters finds out, plastic surgery in pursuit of perfection is often disappointing because the desire for perfection often masks personality flaws or other underlying issues in a relationship.

McMahon paints a realistic portrait of the punishing workload that Kate has taken on in order to protect herself from relationships that life and her own mistakes have taught her to avoid.

As Swallows Fly is not a love story, but Kate has met a nice man who’s a colleague, and a widower with two children.  But her past relationships have all ended badly for the others involved, and she thinks that she’s toxic.  But she has made an effort to reconnect with her friend Lucy, who sees things in a simpler, more forgiving way:

Lucy was quiet for a moment.  ‘Kate, you’re not a bad person.  We’ve all done stuff that’s dumb, dumb or stupid.  Tell me who hasn’t.  God, there was a time when I was sleeping with two guys for a while.  But it’s in the past, and there is a locked room.  You can’t get back in; you can’t change it.  So you have to pull your knickers and bra on over the person you actually are now, take a chance, and show the world.  Or else a part of you stays in that locked room forever.’ She pointed her finger and her grey eyes looked into Kate’s.  ‘And those guys didn’t have to do what they did.’ (p.267)

The culture clash is delicately pictured.  McMahon is Professor of Nephrology at Monash University but he has worked all over the world, including in Oxford, Berlin, Newfoundland New Zealand and Pakistan, where part of the novel is set.  This gives authenticity to the settings there, and to Malik and Kate’s occasional confusion over cultural differences.  At an Italian eatery on their first weekend together, Malika gets up to return the empty plates.

‘It’s all right,’ said Kate.  ‘The waitress will take the plates.’

‘I am very able to do this.’

‘It’s her job,’ Kate began, cutting her sentence short as the girl stood and took her plate to the counter. ‘The staff expect to clear the tables,’ she explained quietly, as Malika sat down again, ‘it’s what they’re paid to do.’

Her eyes widened.  ‘Have I done a bad thing?’

‘Not at all.  I am sure the waitress is grateful.’ She paused.  ‘You seemed to enjoy the meal.’

Malika nodded. ‘It was very good. I have not tried this food before.  When I looked at Australian food on my computer, it was meat pies and chips. I am glad we did not eat that.’ (p.164)

Malika goes on to say that prefers prosciutto to ham, and it is Kate’s turn to be confused because she had assumed from Malika’s veil and clothing that she was Muslim.  She gets an even more disconcerting surprise when Malika ventures out alone to find the nearest church for Mass on Sunday.

I really liked this book.  I liked the depth of characterisation; the effective #NoSpoilers narrative tension; the authenticity of Kate’s workplace and its travails; and her lack of confidence contrasted with Malika’s self-assurance.

Highly recommended.

Author: L.P. McMahon
Title: As Swallows Fly
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2021
Cover and internal design by Alissa Dinallo
ISBN: 9781920727512, pbk., 382
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Thank you, Lisa. I’ve put this on reserve at my library.

    Like

    • I predict (with a fair degree of confidence) that you will like it. There’s much more to it than I’ve had space to write about here, and also I wanted to avoid spoilers.

      Like

  2. I guess McMahon knows his plastic surgery, he might even know women. I wonder if had a reason to make Malika Catholic – the Church hasn’t enjoyed a good press recently.

    Like

    • As far as I know, there aren’t any Islamic boarding schools in Melbourne.
      (Nephrology is to do with kidneys).

      Like


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