On the face of it, this novel has a lot going for it: murder, a secret society, an English manor, a man servant who has seen it all. And yet the book was quite frustrating to read. On one hand, the prose is exquisite and the premise of the plot arresting. On the other hand, O’Donnell teases the reader without providing a satisfying payoff in the end. I didn’t want to put it down, but ultimately, I felt sort of cheated.
The novel is set sometime in the early to mid 20th century. It isn’t really clear what decade we are in and time in general is kind of wonky in this book. Eustace, the man servant, is supposed to be 60-ish but looks 20 years younger, and his master, Mr. Crowe, might or might not be some kind of “eternal” who has been around for centuries. This is one of the things that is teased but never developed or explained. The secret society Mr. Crowe belongs to is likewise never explained. At any rate, the novel begins with a middle of the night murder on the grounds of Mr. Crowe’s estate. Eustace sees it unfold from a window: Crowe kills a man who has attacked a beautiful blonde singer named Arabella. Eustace is accustomed to Crowe doing outrageous things that get them both into trouble, and so he sets about trying to clean up Crowe’s mess before the authorities get involved, but we learn that the authorities of concern are not the police so much as the director of the secret society that Crowe belongs to. When Mr. Chastern and his servant Nazaire arrive, Eustace knows the household is in for trouble and takes precautions to protect Crowe, but he is not prepared for the upheaval that they will unleash.
The narrative point of view in The Maker of Swans moves back and forth between Eustace and the young ward of Mr. Crowe, Clara. Eustace’s story involves going back to his troubled childhood and the circumstances in which he met Crowe. Clara’s story is far less developed and therefore more frustrating. We never learn how she became an orphan or how she came to live with Mr Crowe. Clara is mute but quite precocious. Her memory for books is astounding, and it seems that she has read Crowe’s entire library and committed it to memory. Clara spends a lot of time on her own, wandering the grounds, collecting objects whose meaning to her is vitally important but never explained (and then dropped entirely from the story), and observing everything from a parapet. She is an interesting character who seems to have some sort of “power” that might be of interest to the secret society, but I have to confess that the nature of her power was not terribly clear to me. Mr. Crowe’s “power” was likewise murky, as was Mr. Chastern’s.
As I was reading, it seemed to me that this novel is perhaps an allegory about creativity, writing, and the power of books. Crowe has an extensive library and a “talent” that, while unexplained, seems related to creative inspiration and successful writing. Clara in some respects is a blank page; she does not speak but writes constantly, and her words seem to have the power to enchant Eustace and perhaps do even more. O’Donnell’s writing, particularly his descriptions of nature, is beautiful and lyrical.
Above the moors, a tear of clean sky has opened in the weather. The buzzards prowl at this apex then swoon in graceful helices through the clarified air.
O’Donnell’s writing and the theme of literary inspiration/creativity kept me interested in this story, but ultimately I felt like the gaps — the lack of explanation, of connecting some rather crucial dots — diminished its power.