Review of Anna Kovatcheva's The White Swallow

Jeff Albers

“This is a story of Bulgaria,” Anna Kovatcheva writes in the acknowledgments of The White Swallow, winner of the 2014 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Competition. Drawing on Bulgarian folklore’s figuration of the white swallow as healer, the fantastic and the realistic intermingle for a mythical tale set in the distant past that feels as urgent and contemporary as it does evergreen.

The world is bleak at the outset. “And anyway,” the village’s midwife says to a stillborn in the first line of dialogue, “it isn’t so good here.” That deceased child, Zina, is given the chance to find out for herself as a swallow swoops down, claws at her chest cavity, and burrows inside until her cries carry in the soft spring air. Oh, and there’s one crucial caveat: “Her heart still did not beat; it made the rustling sound of wings.” The bird girl, as the village comes to call her, is small, pale, but soon discovers she harbors an incredible gift: through song, she can channel the healing ability of the bird caged within her ribs.

The plot hinges not only on Zina testing the limits of her gift but on challenging the social mores of her world. She falls for another girl in the village, Hrista, whose father, sympathetic in some ways, fails to see beyond his fixed ideology when his daughter explains the relationship: “Don’t be ridiculous,” he responds. “Women can’t give each other children. Women can’t be husbands.” Never mind the fact that birds also can’t usually replace beating hearts. Like Anne Sexton’s revisionist Brothers Grimm tales, Kovatcheva’s The White Swallow is a transformation that affords a contemporary critique of such parochial patriarchy. From birth, Zina’s existence has carried the patina of the miraculous, and a reader is left to wonder: what sort of miracle would it take?

We suffer with Zina and Hrista by proxy, another of the story’s refreshingly modern innovations. Told from the perspective of a boy roughly their age who feels perennially the third wheel, the narrative framing—unlike a fairy tale’s more traditional omniscient-third—allows Kovatcheva to incorporate meditations on the nature of storytelling, memory, and direct versus mediated experience—all topics increasingly relevant to our own digital live-streaming age. What does it mean to participate anymore? What stories are ours to tell? Our narrator often fills us in on events that occurred at places he himself was not present, relating in convincing detail scenes he neither took part in nor witnessed. After Zina’s first healing, he admits, “I wasn’t there to see them […] but Hrista told the story so often I thought I remembered it, right down to the gravel road bruising my knees.” Then comes the confession likely driving his narration: “I wished I had been there.” Kovatcheva inhabits this perspective so fully that a reader glides right along, rapt, oblivious to the degree of technical skill involved.

The same care and attention is evident throughout The White Swallow. The precision of Kovatcheva’s imagistic prose—Zina’s healings are really something—and the confident pacing means we, too, leave the world of the story feeling absently for the raw bluish bruises on our own unblemished knees. The healings, the girls’ intense union, and the narrator’s desire for inclusion all dovetail in a gripping denouement, and we put the book down with Hrista’s own attempt at healing echoing in our ears, courtesy not some magical white swallow but the more mundane white lie: kissing the narrator’s forehead, she answers his wish to have witnessed something miraculous with a simple, merciful: “But of course you were there.” Like the narrator, readers, too, can be forgiven for misremembering they were.