Mary Swann is a poet and a mystery, who defies the understanding of the few scholars who specialize on her works. Born in Nadeau, a small Ontario town which she never left, she had only a minimal education and no apparent knowledge of modern poetry. However, what she left to posterity is a collection of poems worthy of Emily Dickinson. Her death, violent, since her husband killed her and chopped her before shooting himself, is also a puzzle.

The story is told from different point of views: Sarah Maloney is a feminist teacher who met an early literary success with her PHD thesis, but who has mellowed a lot about her feminist theories. Morton Jimroy is a cynical writer of biographies. Divorced and exiled in California for a semester, he falls in love with Sarah Maloney through an exchange of letters. Rose Hindmarch, the Nadeau librarian, knew Mary Swann and lent her the books she read. Frederic Cruzzi, widower and editor of Mary Swann, met her for the first and last time on the day of her death. We learn about the people who are interested in Mary Swann, about their lives, ambitions and fears, their feelings of loneliness and we realize that they all have a part to play in the “creation” of Mary Swann. In the end, a Mary Swann symposium takes place, where all the people involved in the novel meet.

As with Small Ceremonies, I enjoyed reading a novel about writers and scholars, and at first it made me think of Possession, by A.S. Byatt, but the more I read, and the more I was reminded of David Lodge more than Byatt. The tragic end of Mary Swann as a poet whose inspiration was constrained and finally destroyed by her husband could indicate that the novel is a drama, but in fact, it is a comedy, a “human comedy”, about people and their foibles, and the little things that makes them human and connects them to each other. It is also about the impossibility to truly know someone. It raises a lot of questions about literature and authenticity. In Small Ceremonies, the main character is also a biographer, like Morton Jimroy, and Shields writes about the difficulty for biographers to capture the truth of a person. With Mary Swann, she does this even more thoroughly, by showing how lies told, or decisions made by several people influence what perception posterity will have of a person who cannot talk for herself anymore. It makes us think about the “truth” of literature…

Mary Swann is a very good novel, which in my opinion lacked a little something to be truly excellent. Not all the parts hold the reader’s interest in the same way. Very cleverly, Shields decided to change the types of narration to prove her point about how impossible it is to truly know someone: in the first chapter, she uses a very intimate first-person narration, then a third-person narration with many insights into the consciousness, then a more distant third person with a biography-like “objectivity” and finally, a script where people are reduced to a simple description like “woman with turban” or “blue-spotted tie”. By doing this, she puts more and more distance between narrator and character, illustrating effectively the purpose of the novel. Unfortunately, the narration becomes progressively more contrived as a result and I missed the fluidity of the first part, mostly in the script-like narration of the symposium, which was a bit tedious.

Despite its flaws, Mary Swann is a fine academic novel…

Rating: 4/5