Desire and Death: Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing

Book Review by John T. Plunket

Richard Adams is best known for Watership Down, the 1972 novel which launched his career as a writer. Watership Down was unique and difficult to categorize, and this is true for much of Adams’s diverse output. His focus, of course, was on animals, ranging from novels like The Plague Dogs and Shardik to children’s picture books like The Tyger Voyage and the wonderfully swashbuckling narrative poem The Ship’s Cat.

The Girl in a Swing (1980) is not for children, and with the exception of an unpleasant black dog, animals play a minor role, although Adams’s love of nature is readily apparent. The novel is, however, unique and difficult to categorize, a curious amalgam of love, sadness, horror, and- ceramics. The latter because the narrator, Alan Desland, runs a china shop, and this vocation plays an unexpectedly large role in the story.

Much is unexpected here. Adams takes a long time to get to the sadness and horror, but it doesn’t matter. His writing is lyrical, a gliding, intoxicating song which rarely if ever hits a wrong note. It flows like the memorable river swims the narrator enjoys, and whether Alan is reminiscing about his childhood or waxing rhapsodic about pottery, it is highly enjoyable, hooking the reader from the first pages:

“Last night I dreamt that I woke to hear some strange, barely audible sound from downstairs- a kind of thin tintinnabulation… The doors of the china cabinets were standing open, but all the figures were in their places- the Bow Liberty and Matrimony, the Four Seasons of Neale earthenware, the Reinicke girl on her cow; yes, and she herself- the Girl in a Swing. It was from these that the sound came, for they were weeping.”

Alan is a shy, quirky soul, who seems, like the rabbit Fiver in Watership Down, to be endowed with some sort of extrasensory perception. Eventually, Alan makes a business trip to Copenhagen, where he falls head over heels in love with the mysterious Käthe, who is distinctly opaque about her past.

What follows is an absorbing, sensual love story as well as a delicately chilling ghost story. Käthe and Alan’s whirlwind romance and impulsive marriage are vividly described. Interspersed with the eroticism are various sly, half-hidden references to what is to come, barely-felt undercurrents which gradually build to a riptide leading to sadness, fear and death.

Part of the appeal of The Girl in a Swing is that the horror element is left somewhat ambiguous (Alan may not be the most reliable narrator). In his preface to this strangely personal novel, Adams states that “I cannot be sure of unraveling the experienced from the imagined,” and this applies to the reader, too.

There is much to love about The Girl in a Swing: the elegance of the writing, the richly developed characters, the sensual romance and delicate horror, and just the sheer oddness and idiosyncrasy of it, even for a writer known for idiosyncrasy. It is a memorable, beautiful book.

John T. Plunket is a long-time horror enthusiast who loves discovering old and new stories and films in the genre.  He sometimes writes about horror at