I had not heard of this book, or its author until L.P.McMahon was invited to be the Ivanhoe Reading Circle’s annual guest speaker. His book, As Swallows Fly is set in Pakistan and Melbourne, but Lawrie himself hails more locally from Rosanna as a child and ended up as Professor of Nephrology at Monash University. That local connection may well have been why the Ivanhoe Reading Circle invited him to speak. His immersion in the world of medicine comes through clearly in his book, particularly at the end, and from his talk we learned that he and his wife had visited a Catholic mission in a Pakistani village which largely mirrors the village in the opening chapters of the book. So, in many ways McMahon is following the injunction “write what you know”.
Although this book is fiction, it evokes shades of the story of Malala Yousafzai, who was severely injured after a Taliban assassination attempt, and was treated in a UK hospital. In this book, however, young Pakistani and Christian Malika was attacked as a more personalized act of resentment and power, and she ended up in Australia more on account of her mathematical brilliance which was being wasted in a small village, than because of her injuries. She boarded at a private school and attended extension activities at the University of Melbourne. As a back-stop, her village priest in Pakistan put her in contact with Dr Kate Davenport, a plastic surgeon, who assumes incorrectly that Malika is hiding her face behind a veil for cultural/religious reasons. Rather implausibly, neither Malika nor Kate realize at first the possibilities for healing that the situation could provide.
The book has several ‘starts’ before arriving at the present day. The opening pages are a prologue set in Melbourne, twenty-three years earlier where we sense the tension between a teenaged Kate and her mother; Part One commences in Rural Pakistan five years earlier as we learn how Malika came to live in the Christian village and come under the care of Ayesha, her foster mother, along with Tahir, a Muslim boy, after a car accident. Part Two finally brings us to present-day Melbourne where Kate, now a successful plastic surgeon, is cleaning out her now-deceased mother’s house when she is approached to care for Malika on the weekends. Part Three takes us to Malika’s boarding school, where she struggles with the other girls, who are jealous of her brilliance. Part Four explores the evolving relationship between Malika and Kate, and expands on Kate’s own working life and the political struggles in a high-stress, ego-driven profession, along with the family emotional baggage that she is still dealing with. If you think that there’s going to be a Cinderella ending, between the plastic-surgeon and her damaged protege – there’s not.
As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here- rather too much, I think. I was rather surprised that McMahon chose to write from the point of view of two women- Kate and Malika- and he generally carried it off sensitively, with just a few infelicities. By making Kate a plastic surgeon, McMahon was able to explore ideas of facial perfection and imperfection, but at times I felt that he betrayed his male gaze in his descriptions of women. The author’s own medical experience comes through, especially in the sections dealing with professional rivalry with other specialists, and in medical terminology when describing clinical conditions. I certainly don’t share Malika’s gift for mathematics, and I just have to take on trust that her fascination with the flocking behaviour of swallows as a mathematical problem is more than just a metaphor for being on the edges of the crowd. Some of the characters seemed rather one-dimensional: the only mentions of Muslim characters were negative, and Sam the receptionist was so brazen as to be a caricature. The narrative relied heavily on dialogue, which at times verged on the banal and the writing felt forced at times.
In spite of my reservations about aspects of this book, I found myself more emotionally engaged with the characters than I expected to be, and sat up in bed until quite late to finish the book. And I’m always attracted to books set in my own home town, and he wrote Melbourne well.
My rating: 6.5/10
Sourced from: purchased e-book.
Other reviews: Lisa at ANZBookLovers enjoyed the book (probably more than I did) and reviewed it here.