The Swallows Uncaged: A Narrative in Eight Panels by Elizabeth McLean

Jade Colbert reviews Elizabeth McLean’s newest work, The Swallows Uncaged: A Narrative in Eight Panels. This review was originally published by The Globe and Mail


The Swallows Uncaged: A Narrative in Eight Panels
by Elizabeth McLean, Freehand, 303 pages, $21.95. (The Globe and Mail, Oct. 25, 2015)

Elizabeth McLean’s debut takes the form of a Vietnamese eight-panel screen, each panel’s story a slice of Vietnamese history from the 11th century to the 21st.

Describing these as connected short stories would give a poor sense of the resonance running through the book as well as the sense of a larger narrative propelling the story forward. But if it’s a novel, it’s how David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten is a novel: atypical. Presenting the screen in the prelude, McLean writes, “You begin to feel for the ordinary people who lived behind the curtain of history.” These ordinary people are girls and women who live extraordinary stories. That the book has narrative drive doesn’t imply history drives in a specific direction – that it catapults toward a more liberal present, for instance. Rather, The Swallows Uncaged presents history’s women as agents within the constraints of their own time – birds who occasionally take flight.

Author Elizabeth McLean

For more information on Elizabeth McLean and her book visit her website here.


Elizabeth McLean immigrated to Canada from Warsaw, Poland, in the 1960s. She worked for several years as a CBC radio producer, a researcher for TIME Canada, and a government policy writer. In 2005, at the age of 63, she impulsively began her “life of adventure” and moved to Hanoi, Vietnam, where she spent six years immersed in and researching Vietnamese culture. A debut author at age 73, Elizabeth now lives in Vancouver.

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