The Arc of the Swallow

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Translated by Charlotte Barslund

Published by Quercus 6 November 2014

480pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Sara Maitland

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This is, in many respects, a classic ‘good read’ – think long-haul air-flight; week with grandchildren; waiting in A&E for your friend (or even yourself if it is not something too painful) to be seen: it is a plot-driven novel but has some rather well developed characters; it has an intelligent premise without being intellectually demanding; even its absurdly excessive length works for it in this context.  And it is such a relief to me to have a murder mystery which is sexual predator/ psychopath/ gruesome-female-body-parts free.

I have no idea whether the underlying concept – that mass immunizations can have unexpected and highly negative non-specific effects even while they do actually prevent the killer diseases they are aimed at – has scientific validity (although Gazan, herself a biologist, includes an ‘author’s note’ on the sources.  And the WHO has over recent years withdrawn some particular vaccines). But it feels like a highly plausible idea, though particularly hard to prove in third world countries with poor medical infrastructures including record keeping and high infant mortality. Given the massive scale of global immunization programmes and the known greed of the pharmaceutical industry, it is not a huge step to imagine someone crossing a line between scientific de-bunking and criminal suppression, the dishonest discrediting of research and eventually murder to protect profits.  The demographic and statistical research is really well explained without being allowed to take over from the detection/ mystery.

Meanwhile our valiant and sympathetic detective (apparently the same character as in Gazan’s previous best-seller The Dinosaur Feather, which I have not read but soon will) has a complex personal agenda of his own; the murdered scientist’s favourite doctoral student also carries complicated back-issues (including what must be one of the most dysfunctional families in fiction – a touch of overkill here!); and a large cast of secondary characters, all with so much on their psychological plates that it is hard to imagine how they get any detection or scientific work done at all, but which adds to the readers’ pleasure. All very good and well integrated into the plot.

I do have some quibbles, of course.  The somewhat looping narrative chronology (brought on mainly by trying to run two different points of view simultaneously) occasionally had me a little confused; I found the writing style pedestrian to put it mildly, though this might be as much the fault of the translator as the author; and the final chapter, which hands out ‘happy endings’ to absolutely everyone, was not only improbable and sentimental but also very annoying and cloying.

But over all I thought this was a lot of fun and look forward to Gazan’s next volume.

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