The Girl in a Swing (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
Richard Adams’ first three novels earned international acclaim for their incisive and somewhat anthropomorphic vision. They were merely preludes, however, to the mythical scope and style of his recent publication—The Girl in a Swing. With a penchant for ambiguity, irony, and meticulous detail, Adams juxtaposes the bizarre and banal and probes provocative issues of moral and psychological import. Reminiscent of Henry James or Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps, his latest work is a tour de force of symbolism, subtlety, and suspense; although little in the charm and conventionality of its early pages suggests the astonishing twists and turns the tale eventually takes. By employing, however, first-person narration enhanced by stream-of-consciousness and flash-back techniques, Adams lends candor and credibility to a plot which at times appears ambiguous, if not beyond belief. Consequently, he intermingles rational exposition with an alarming “immediacy” of inexplicable events.
At first glance, though, The Girl in a Swing is simply a new erotic novel—an elegiac account of conjugal love that is passionately intense, but painfully brief. Irony and intrigue co-exist, however, in the surrealistic, romantic incursions of Alan Desland, a conservative country gentleman, and Käthe—an unorthodox, exotic beauty—whose love inevitably alters the quality and course of their existence. Theirs is an instant courtship, an immediate marriage, and an ecstatic physical union fulfilling beyond every dream and erotic desire. Yet, when strange sounds and sinister shadows threaten idyllic bliss, the seemingly romantic novel assumes a Gothic hue. Plagued by recurrent nightmares and reticular events, Alan grows painfully apprehensive and increasingly aware of Käthe’s secret past. Having drowned her child to escape the “sins” of indiscretion and to seek happiness with Alan, Käthe inevitably learns the futility of flight from conscience and self-condemnation. Concurrently, either imagined or real, pitiful cries and ghostly apparitions persistently probe her guilt and fear of disclosure.
Less than two months after marrying Alan, his bride suffers a sudden and tragic death, the cause of which (adduced as ectopic pregnancy) is obviously clothed in bizarre and ambiguous detail. Moments before her death, in fact, both she and Alan had witnessed a ghostlike form emerging from the surf; and, unquestionably, the childlike visage precipitated his faint and her imminent flight from the hideous scene. Questions as to whether the appearance is “real,” an instrument of retribution, or simply a reflection of Käthe’s guilt, remain extant. For, although Adams explores the implications of fate, destiny, and divine judgment, he deliberately resists effecting a resolution by didactic or authorial intrusion.
Ironically, therefore, Alan perjures himself to preserve Käthe’s memory free from remonstrance and regret: “She could not forgive herself, and so she died. But I forgive her. More—I do not, I cannot wish anything undone, if that would mean we had never loved.” Käthe, he discerns, having never been subject to moral judgment, now “needed nothing from God;” so, secure in his faith, he resigns himself to accept his loss, his suffering, and his fate. Paradoxically, through death, Käthe lives eternal—a timeless perfection transcending the temporal world. Now, for Alan alone, she remains “in the swing, exquisite as porcelain, secretly smiling”—forever “flesh and dancing spirit.” Having awakened the mild-mannered Englishman to life and love, Käthe—in death—inspires him anew; like the precious porcelain he so reveres, she too transcends this dreary place where “we scratch about and wait to die.” Thus enriched by infinite excellence, Alan aspires to enlighten others that all might see: “What else thus bodies forth the nature of life and manifests, from the finite, the infinite? I have work to do. Somehow, my grief and loss are to enrich the world.”
Beyond its thematic allusions to illusion and reality, fate and destiny, guilt and moral restitution, The Girl in a Swing is a novel of intense and inordinate love—symbolic, sexual, and spiritual. It examines the myriad aspects of a woman’s love, sufficient to sacrifice any impediment to fruition, and a husband’s love so warmed by the light of his wife’s affection, it could deny her nothing and forgive her all. Also, although the narrative burgeons beyond the love motif, certainly love does serve as a catalytic force for plot and structure and assists in the critical assessment of the protagonist and his bride.
Alan Desland, for example, had always considered himself unattractive, and thus he acquiesced...
(The entire section is 1940 words.)
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