November 18, 2017

a game for swallows

A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to Return

Zeina Abirached

Pub. 2012

188 pgs.

Genre: Memoir, Graphic Novel

Summary / Review / TLDR / Recommended For / Issues / Themes / Grade


Summary

In the midst of the civil war in Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1980s, Zeina’s parents leave her and her little brother alone to visit their grandmother on the other side of the barricade that divides Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut. But Zeina and her brother aren’t really alone—the tenants in their building tend to come together in the evenings for conversation and companionship. Zeina’s apartment is, after all, contains the safest spot in the entire building. The Abirached’s foyer, where they’ve taken to living in the years since the war began, has sturdy walls and no windows.

So on a night whose type has become all-too-common, nine people gather together to share drinks, food, and the responsibility of caring for Zeina and her brother. They might have little to offer beyond that, but as the bombs rain down upon their beloved city, it is enough.

But in a city where people disappear every day, one question remains on everyone’s minds: will Zeina’s parents make it home?

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Review

This book is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the black-and-white art can be difficult to follow at times. Occasionally it feels like the page is too busy, despite it essentially looking like a woodblock print. The figures themselves, on the other hand, were easy to distinguish from one another, for the most part—a helpful fact in a book with so many characters.

Actually, that was one of the major successes of A Game for Swallows. Even though there was a large number of main characters, Abirached took time to give background and context to each one. We learn about twins Victor and Ernest, whose daily games kept everyone entertained until one was killed. We find out how Chuchi, the landlord, inherited the building and his business. Farah and Razri, married and pregnant and trying to flee the country; Anhala, who’s raised three generations of Farah’s family; Madame Linda, former beauty queen; Kahlid, her husband who once owned a nightclub…all of these characters are explored in the few pages of the book. The way each one is introduced and has their lives explained is a poignant message about how wildly life can change.

Conspicuously absent, though, is a sense of who Zeina and her family members are. Sure, Zeina and her brother are just little kids who have been raised during wartime, so it might make sense that they’re fairly quiet. The parents don’t show up much in the story, either, so that could help explain why they and their personalities aren’t fully-realized. However, given how strong all the rest of the characterization is in the story, this lack of personality is underscored about a dozen times.

Also missing is some context for the war. Abirached doesn’t shy away from looking into the past when describing characters; a hint of explanation for the war wouldn’t have gone amiss. This is doubly so because the intended audience is middle- and high-school readers, and it’s likely they wouldn’t have much background knowledge to rely on when understanding exactly what’s going on in the story. This problem could have even been resolved with a one-page prose prologue from the author. I suppose it might be argued that foregoing any historical context enhances the theme, but I still don’t think it’s terribly helpful.

Speaking of the theme, Abirached handled it well. She does an excellent job of showing us how war negatively impacts civilians through the backstories of her character instead of taking the easy way out and simply saying, “Boo war! War is bad!” It requires closer reading, and I could see this book leading to some great in-class discussions as part of a language arts or social studies curriculum.

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TLDR

Just like days in war-torn Beirut, this book has its ups and downs, but it ultimately overcomes some of its problems.

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Recommended for…

  • History buffs
  • Fans of Persepolis
  • Social studies classrooms

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Issues

  • Death: frequent references to character death
  • Religion: war is between Christians and Muslims
  • Violence: references to violence related to war
  • War: there’s a war going on

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Themes

  • Change vs. Tradition
  • Death
  • Determination
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Growing Up
  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Right vs. Wrong
  • Survival

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Grade

Main Character 1
Subcast 2
Setting Development 2
Exploration of Conflict 2
Satisfying Resolution 1
Consideration of Themes 2
Didactic Tone 1
Suspension of Disbelief 2
Imagery and Description 1
Compelling Storytelling 1
Author’s Style 2
Rhythm and Pace of Book 1
Mechanics (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 2
Predictability 1
Reader Enjoyment 1
Total 22/30
73%

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