Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
Published by Hutchinson, 2018
My rating: ⭐
I should preface this review by making one thing clear: I always knew this book wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. Reading the blurb, and various reviews, it didn’t appeal to my bookish tastes at all. Normally, I would have steered clear. Alas, as part of my efforts to read the entire Women’s Prize longlist, it was a box that needed to be ticked. In that sense, I don’t doubt it will work considerably better in the hands of other readers.
The story is a fictionalised account of the life of Truman Capote and his circle of close friends; socialites collectively known as his ‘swans’. When he writes a thinly veiled exposé, revealing their trusted secrets, scandal and backlash ensue.
I’ll start with what I did like. The book paints a portrait of a man from lonely beginnings, who seeks validation through his work, and his association with the rich and famous. There is tragic irony in the fact that his own thirst for attention causes him to betray the very people who give him companionship, threatening to leave him more alone than ever as he slips into a fugue of addiction and lies. The use of narrative voice is also interesting, the ‘swans’ narrating the story as a collective ‘we’.
However, this doesn’t feel like an examination of a complex man, nor a fleshing out of his enigmatic ‘swans’. Rather, it resembles a painfully drawn out gossip column. Honestly, my predominant thought throughout was thus: If the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame had existed in the 70s, it would have read like this book. I hoped it might offer a feminist, insightful view of these people; one that defied expectations and gave the women agency. Instead, it all felt incredibly vapid, reinforcing every socialite trope there is.
There’s also just no need for it to be so long. The book is stuffed with tangents that offer no depth or development, other than to repeatedly show us how vain, shallow, cruel, and catty most of these people are. Yes, the women’s obsession with image and reputation is almost certainly down to harsh societal pressures, but I didn’t find any of them sympathetic or compelling enough to care. And whilst the shared narrative voice did indeed throw up lots of potential, it ultimately resulted in a blending together of the women. They all descended into an exhausting mass of white privilege, from which individuals were hard to discern.
The prose in general feels convoluted and overdone. It’s as though the author is trying hard to elevate the impact and merit of the content beyond its worth; unnecessary and melodramatic metaphors abound.
The lack of a satisfying plot would have been easier to contend with had the characters been presented well, but I thought the handling of Capote was verging on offensive. Poorly drawn characters is one thing, but when you’re dealing with real people, it’s even more problematic. Yes, Capote was openly gay, petite in stature, and known to be quite eccentric, but my god does Greenberg-Jephcott revel is reminding us. Over. And. Over. Again. He is consistently infantilised, invariably referred to as ‘the boy’; not to mention the frequent, unchallenged use of terms like ‘elfin’, ‘midget’, ‘effeminate’, ‘girly’, ‘fag’, and even ‘twisted dwarf’ throughout the narration. Granted, this kind of language was somewhat commonplace back in the 70s, but there are more nuanced, intelligent ways to authentically capture an era than to constantly beat readers over the head with slurs. It’s such a wasted opportunity to write a book centred around a fascinating, iconic figure, if you’re simply going to reduce him to a caricature of gay stereotypes. (And the man was 5’3”, for crying out loud – hardly short enough to warrant a reminder every single time he is mentioned.)
I cited a couple of positive points, and will admit that the final quarter included a few considerably more interesting scenes. That said, I just couldn’t justify a higher rating. The moments of interest were too few and far between to make up for how much the rest of the book felt like hard work, or how troublesome I found the characterisation. Also, this was my 12th pick from the Women’s Prize longlist, and whilst there have been a few that weren’t to my personal taste, I always understood and respected their inclusion in the mix. This is the first one that has genuinely puzzled me. The whole thing felt mean spirited, boring, and clumsy, and offered no obvious thematic value. There’s also the unavoidable irony that this book is criticising Capote for writing about the sordid lives of a group of unpleasant people without their consent, under the guise of ‘fiction’, when this is doing exactly the same thing.
We can’t like them all. I just hope others have enjoyed this more than I did.
If you think you’ll have better luck than I did with Swan Song, and fancy trying it for yourself, you can pick up a copy by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.