Sexy, sweary, drug and alcohol-fuelled, and very funny, Polly is a heroine for the 21st century. She’s failed the year at university, slept with her housemate’s boyfriend and thinks she and a friend might have accidentally caused the death of a Spanish student. Police are calling for witnesses so, instead of a holiday sunning herself on a beach, she’s staying with her mother in Scotland and trying to catch up on her uni work. The weather is terrible, the people worse and Polly doesn’t think she’ll survive a summer there, in spite of access to drugs and porn.
Then everything gets more complicated: there are strange happenings (real or imaginary or too much weed?) and she gradually becomes more and more involved with a local man. Swansong is a fascinating depiction of one man’s extreme isolation and oddness; the way it brings out more of Polly’s curiosity and determination is what drives the novel. What starts off as a rollercoaster of drink, drugs and endless exploration becomes a tender, heart-breaking love story that is almost unbearably poignant.
The language is brilliantly inventive with similes always taken from Polly’s jaded, urban worldview. When she’s walking on the beach the seaweed makes ‘bubble-wrap pops under my hands’. Or a ‘black and white bird with a long, neon-orange beak flew low making little rape alarm calls.’ Or she describes ‘tons and tons of sky, the clouds all whipped up into a TV chef’s best egg whites and moving fast.’
It’s refreshing in a contemporary novel to read what a protagonist would really see, smell and feel. I was less convinced by the italicised passages in the voice of… is it a girl? is it a bird?, which isn’t revealed until the end; but this is a very satisfying story with a tough, flawed heroine. Although we don’t want Polly to change and settle down, we do want her to be happy and by the end of the novel she’s grown up and learned how to love.
Kerry Andrew, a musician and composer, uses myth, legend and storytelling in this innovative literary debut. The language may not be to everyone’s taste but in Polly we have a tough female protagonist to rival any larger than life male hero.