Author Theanna Bischoff’s Swallow starts off with a familiar refrain: “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly....”
In the book, Bischoff’s protagonist, Darcy Nolan, is also chasing down a mystery: why did her younger sister Carly commit suicide? Was it because Darcy told Carly’s ex-boyfriend to cease contact with her still besotted sister? And what was the meaning of Carly’s last communication to her, a cryptic text message reading “Always blue”?
In search of an answer, Darcy spends most of the novel sifting through a lifetime of memories. Bischoff says the novel’s fragmented structure, which cuts back and forth between the events immediately before and after Carly’s death and random recollections from the sisters’ childhood, mirrors the nature of memory itself.
“The narrator is trying to piece together why her sister killed herself and sort of dealing with her own grief, and through that she’s having all these different memories of their childhood together and trying to make sense of it,” says Bischoff. “So the novel really jumps around in time. It mirrors how memory jumps around, and you have flashbacks and one memory triggers another memory, it’s not always linear.”
In addition to shifts in time, the novel’s geographic setting alternates between Toronto, where the sisters were born and raised, and Calgary, where Darcy moves to study education and ultimately becomes a teacher. Bischoff, who grew up in Calgary but moved to Toronto to pursue graduate studies in psychology, says the differences between the two cities parallel the differences between the sisters.
“My experience living in the two different cities is that Toronto is a very busy and noisy and lively and sort of up all night and energetic,” she says, “and that sort of is more the personality of Carly. And then Darcy to me is more like Calgary, or at least my associations with Calgary, so she’s professional.”
Although Bischoff describes Swallow as “a heavy book,” she acknowledges it’s not relentlessly bleak. Life goes on after a suicide, she says, because there is no choice, and Darcy finds some comfort in her fond memories of her free-spirited sister.
“Even though Carly killed herself, they have a very rich history together and there’s a lot of love between them. And so that maybe gives hope for Darcy in the future, that she had such a profound time with her sister. Even if it was complex, and even if her sister’s life ended the way that it did.”
Although Darcy ultimately realizes the meaning of Carly’s message and concludes she wasn’t necessarily responsible for her sister’s death, she doesn’t come away with any sense of why Carly killed herself. Bischoff says the novel invites readers to weigh the evidence on this question, but they won’t necessarily gain any more insight than Darcy.
“I think the reader will have to decide for themselves why Carly killed herself. And I think that in most suicides, it’s very complex. The family is often left with no real answer and no real closure.”