Peg Kerr, The Wild Swans (Warner, 1999)

I love it when I'm right. (This happens more often than the editor suspects.) [Editor's note: Ha!] After reading Kerr's first novel Emerald House Rising, I was certain that more good writing was on the way -- and I was right.

The Wild Swans, Kerr's second novel, tells two stories which not only intertwine but echo each other. One story is set in New York City in the early 1980s and follows Elias, a young man thrown out of his home when his father finds out that he is gay. He is taken in by Sean, a freelance writer and sometime street musician. Sean, also gay, is sympathetic to Elias' plight and helps him start a new life. Eventually, they become lovers as Elias begins the task of building a new family. Elias has never been happier -- he has a home, friends, and love -- but things take a sudden downturn. Their friends start falling ill and dying; it is the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Elias, bewildered, lives in fear that Sean or he will be next.

Parallel to Elias' story is the story of Eliza, cast out of her home through the machinations of her stepmother, a practicing sorceress. This same stepmother also turned Eliza's eleven brothers into swans years before, although Eliza does not learn this until she finds her brothers.

If this element of the story sounds familiar, it is indeed because Kerr is retelling Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Wild Swans." Like all good storytellers, however, she puts her own stamp on the tale. Eliza's brothers weave a net and fly with Eliza to the New World. There, Eliza learns in a dream vision that the only way to help her brothers is to spin flax from nettles and weave each a coat, and she must remain silent until the task is finished, or her brothers will die. When she is discovered and taken to live in the nearby village, you know that it's only a matter of time before she is accused of witchcraft.

Kerr does not force the modern story into the historical story's framework but lets both stories flow along their own natural paths. Eliza's story reads a bit more smoothly than Elias', partly because of the detail she uses to establish the tone. Overall, she seems more comfortable writing about Eliza, but Elias' story is handled well; sexual references are not overdone, although the description of the bath house might edge close to the boundary of some readers' comfort zones.

The stories parallel each other in many obvious ways, but it is the subtly echoing images which resonate most. I hate to give away any of them because they often surprise you -- I think you'll have to trust me and read the book for yourself. The protagonists and their friends and allies are realistically drawn and sympathetically portrayed. Kerr has pulled off a remarkable, ambitiously structured novel. Don't miss it.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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