Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

Ruth Gili­gan
  • Review
By – September 23, 2016

Ruth Gilligan’s debut nov­el is set in Ire­land and Lon­don in three dif­fer­ent time peri­ods. In 1958, a moth­er and father have their son Shem admit­ted to a pri­vate asy­lum; he has become mute for rea­sons unknown to them and is an embar­rass­ment to his father. As the nov­el pro­gress­es, Shem’s much beloved moth­er, his Ima, vis­its and begs him to find his voice again. But there is more at work than she may real­ize, and Shem lat­er writes, I won­dered now if a fam­i­ly could ever real­ly exist with­out these lies, these secrets to keep it alive. Or if, in the end, that was the def­i­n­i­tion of love.” This ques­tion is the lode­stone of Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.

In mod­ern-day Lon­don, Ais­ling, a young Irish-Catholic woman, pon­ders a reli­gious con­ver­sion. But will it come at the cost of her rela­tion­ship with her fam­i­ly? At the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Ruth, a new­ly immi­grat­ed Lithuan­ian girl, strug­gles to cre­ate a home with her fam­i­ly in Cork, Ire­land. Her father embraces the cul­ture, while her embit­tered moth­er longs for a new life. The boy Shem befriends his room­mate at the asy­lum and begins to exam­ine his own long-held beliefs. These three sto­ry lines are knit togeth­er by the themes of fam­i­ly and belong­ing. At times, the sym­bol­ism feels a bit over­wrought. Nonethe­less, the lan­guage has a spare qual­i­ty to it that trans­ports the read­er with trans­gres­sions of word-play. The sym­bol­ism of the swan — with its con­no­ta­tions of love, puri­ty and sac­ri­fice — haunts this work of fiction.

As the nov­el moves into the mod­ern era, the author dis­rupts time to focus on the mun­dane, the small moments. She paused … her body sus­pend­ed on the inhale. The pos­si­bil­i­ty. Until the earth gave way and the sleán oozed in — through the white stuff at the top and then the prop­er filthy black.” The con­trac­tion and expan­sion of time give the nar­ra­tive a sense of imme­di­a­cy. James Joyce has told us that, in the par­tic­u­lar is con­tained the uni­ver­sal.” As the char­ac­ters in this nov­el move toward per­son­al truths, the con­structs of fam­i­ly, nation­al­i­ty, and cul­ture all come into question.

Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan fea­tures char­ac­ters who are all the more tan­gi­ble for their quest­ing nature, their fal­li­bil­i­ty. Ruth Gilli­gan writes expres­sive­ly of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in Ire­land while embrac­ing the uni­ver­sal human need for com­mu­ni­ty and belonging. 

Relat­ed Reads:

Erin Meier earned her B.A. in from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, and her M.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. She cur­rent­ly lives and writes in Seat­tle, Washington.

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