The Swallows is the type of novel that not everyone will understand, and almost no one will enjoy. However, it is an important one in today’s world as we strive to raise awareness of toxic masculinity and draw attention to the everyday occurrences of sexual harassment women face. In this case, Lisa Lutz uses a private boarding school to tell her story.
While this setting could be a turnoff since private schools typically are elitist, Ms. Lutz uses her narrators to diminish that effect. Alex is a no-nonsense teacher who speaks the truth and arrives at the school fresh from an unknown scandal. Gemma is an equally no-nonsense student who comes not from money but from foster homes and all the baggage that brings. There are two other narrators, both male, but these two women are the keys to the story. Neither woman comes from money or privilege, and their refusal to play social games brings a refreshing air of honesty to the proceedings. Their experiences set the stage for all of the drama to come, while their actions and reactions move the plot towards its fiery ending.
The beating heart of The Swallows is the relationships between the male and female students as well as the culture of tolerance to the point of indifference throughout the campus. Ms. Lutz utilizes almost every cliche ever said when it comes to hormonal teenage boys. The story is disturbing and more explicit than I was prepared to read, as the teenagers are a year or two older than my daughter. It is also a necessary story because the games the boys play towards the girls and the pressure they apply to the girls to comply with their wishes are, I fear, more ubiquitous than any adult realizes. There have long been urban myths whispered about rainbow parties and their ilk. Ms. Lutz blows those myths out into the open and uses her pen to educate parents on what may be happening in school environments.
Her book is not just for adults either. Ms. Lutz uses The Swallows to educate teenagers as well. Through the very extreme example of her story, teenage girls can obtain some valuable lessons on saying no and expectations within relationships. They may find allies in Gemma and Alex as they work through their issues with the boys and men on campus. Teenage girls may be able to use some of the power and autonomy Gemma and Alex fight to obtain in their own lives.
Similarly, teenage boys can see how damaging their objectification of women is. They might get insight into the female mind and see that women are not on Earth to provide them with sexual favors. They might also understand how their actions have genuine consequences for women. There are lessons aplenty throughout The Swallows if one is willing to accept them.
The Swallows should come with a trigger warning because some of the scenes are very upsetting. I found myself tossing and turning each night, trying to get some of what I read out of my head but couldn’t. We need to know what men honestly think of women, just as we need to see how women are capable of pushing back if necessary. The last paragraph of the story sums up the importance of the novel and gives me chills every time I read it.
You can keep telling girls to be polite, to keep a level head and it’ll all work out in the end. But don’t be surprised when they figure out that you’ve been feeding them lies. Don’t be alarmed when they grow tired of using their voices and playing by your rules. And don’t be shocked when they decide that if they can’t win a fair fight, they’ll just have to find another way.