This is sublime. A debut novel from an American writer who has poured ten years of research and four years of writing to produce this critically acclaimed little gem. You can tell it has been a real labour of love for this author, picking up prizes when still a work in progress and now one of the 16 books selected for consideration for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
In 1975 Esquire Magazine produced an extract of an unfinished novel by literary giant Truman Capote which showed a writer past his prime and with a subject matter which shook his circle of friends. The women in high society with whom Capote spent much of his time with saw themselves mocked and their secrets revealed in an astounding case of literary treachery. They turned against him and he never got over it.
I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything. He told everybody else.” It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured. Some may tire of reading of these privileged lifestyles and the manoeuvrings to keep their place in society but I certainly didn’t. Salaciousness as literature – just fabulous!
Narrated unusually in the third person this is the voice of the wronged chorus, Capote’s women, his swans, as they dip in to various parts of their lives, the times when they left themselves open to betrayal. Truman Capote is the central figure, absolutely fascinating and repugnant and totally convincing in this portrayal. His spark of genius faded as he became wrapped up in these swans, the six women whose lives he shattered. The women themselves would mean more to the American reader but amongst them is Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, one amongst the circuit of society women in an age not too far away but which now seems to us an echo of distant glamour.
In the supporting cast is everyone whose light shone during this period when showbiz, politics, power and finance combined including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, various Kennedys, Gore Vidal, The Rolling Stones. I find the whole era fascinating and Capote was at the centre. We rediscover him at various points in his life from a child playing with a young Harper Lee who would later immortalise him as Dill in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to dancing to his own tune as an alcoholic on the disco floor at Studio 54. Hanging over him throughout this time is his relationship with his mother, engendering in him a need for revenge which comes across in his dealings with these society women, his belief in his own talent even when the writing dried up and his obsession with the perpetrators of the crime behind his most celebrated non-fiction work “In Cold Blood”. The complexities of the real man come across so clearly through this re-creation.
But it is Capote’s dynamics with these women who weave in and out of this beautifully written prose which is this novel’s greatest success. Its heavily factual basis has left me thirsting for more and to want to find out about these people and their time but I feel as if I can’t rush into doing this because I want this author’s creations and her versions of events to linger before I start exploring the facts behind this astonishing piece of fiction.
Swan Song was published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2018. The paperback published by Windmill Books is due on 27th June 2019.
Oct 19 Update: Read about Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott at the Isle Of Wight Literary Festival here.