Swan song of loneliness

10 November 2019 - 00:00 By Anna Stroud

(Published in the Sunday Times: 10/11/2019)

Cygnet *****
Season Butler
Little, Brown, R305

Cygnet lives on Swan Island, a separatist community for the elderly who have scorned society and its decay. But the island is also withering, crumbling into the ocean as each wave bites away at their hard-won haven.

Cygnet is not her real name - readers only know her as the Kid, or "Small Fry" as one wrinkly (her nickname for the Swans) affectionately calls her.

The teen is a sore thumb to the Swans - most of them don't want her there because she reminds them of "The Bad Place". But the Kid has nowhere else to go.

Her parents are junkies who dropped her off at her grandmother's house on the island. But her grandmother dies and leaves the Kid waiting for her parents to return for her.

In the meantime, she must eat. She gets a job working for a rich, lonely old woman, editing her family photos and slides until they all look much happier, skinnier and more accomplished than they'd ever been in real life. She also starts reading to an old woman who is in a coma as the days pass and the island gets smaller and smaller.

It's hard to put Cygnet in any genre or form and the narrator would surely tell other coming-of-age tales to get lost. Let's call it then a portrait of a woman - young, black, alone, forgotten - set in a world that will soon cease to exist.

There are subtle hints at something more fantastical at play; the world is ending, or perhaps the wrinklies' way of life is coming to an end. Amid all this, the Kid finds her voice: it's authentic, funny, original, entertaining and, at times, haunting.

Cygnet is a creative, weird debut like no other. No wonder China Miéville raved about it: "Terribly moving. A clear-sighted, poignant rumination on loneliness, love, the melancholy of age and youth." Anna Stroud @annawriter_