Thursday, 20 August 2020

Swan Song - Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Swan Song is a debut novel longlisted for the women's fiction prize.  It tells the story of Truman Capote and his 'swans', a coterie of super-rich women who confided all their secrets to the supposedly harmless gay midget, only for him to spill the beans in extracts from his never-completed novel Answered Prayers, which he sold to Esquire magazine when he could extort no more cash from his publishers.  The sin was unpardonable, and he never was forgiven, so Capote drank and drugged himself to death before he was sixty.

Most of the swans are now forgotten: Babe Paley, wife of the boss of CBS; Gloria Guinness; Slim Keith, wife to both film director Howard Hawks and Broadway producer Leland Hayward; Princess Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy; Marella Agnelli, wife of Fiat supremo Gianni; and C Z Guest, whose husband was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and thus cousin of Winston Churchill. Pamela Churchill, ex-wife of Winston's son Randolph, also plays a significant role.  Truman Capote, however, seems to have kept his reputation long after his death, surprising in one who wrote so little, albeit what he wrote is truly exceptional.

Greenberg-Jephcott cleverly hops back and forth through time.  This is always a difficult trick but she judges it perfectly.  I am not so keen on her attempts at Southern drawl and not all the swans are equally well realised.  However set-pieces like Capote's era-defining black and white ball are brilliantly achieved.  Another trick she pulls of successfully is having the novel narrated by the swans en masse - 'we' rather than 'I'.  I haven't seen it done elsewhere and was highly impressed.

I hadn't realised but another novel on the same subject came out in 2016 (The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin), two years before this.  Greenberg-Jephcott must have been livid.  It would be interesting at some point to compare the two.

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