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Swanna in Love, Jennifer Belle Book Covver

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10 June 2024

Swanna in Love: A Contemporary Lolita

LAUREN GALLAGHER 

Swanna in Love is the most recent novel by the highly regarded author Jennifer Belle and was released in the UK by Dead Ink Books in March 2024. I have to thank Dead Ink Books for sending me a copy of the title, in return for writing an honest piece about the book. Swanna in Love is a character study of fourteen year old Swanna, a precocious and fiercely intelligent teenager who must navigate a tense Summer in the early 80s with her estranged mother. After spending some time at a summer camp, Swanna is surprised to be picked up by her mother and her mother’s new (and much younger) boyfriend. Swanna is even more surprised to hear that she is not returning to her home in New York, but instead will be staying at an artist colony in Vermont indefinitely. The colony is completely unsuitable for a child, forcing Swanna to sleep in a truck bed in the sweltering heat, steal food from the communal kitchen and withstand sexual comments from an older artist at the colony. Swanna finds some solace from this ordeal when she meets a thirty seven year old man named Dennis at a bowling alley. Seeing Dennis as her ticket back to New York, she initiates a relationship with him and the two quickly begin an affair. As Swanna begins to feel she is not welcome back in New York, where her dad has moved in with his new girlfriend, the lines begin to blur in Swanna’s relationship with Dennis, and her feelings start to intensify. The more that Dennis compliments her maturity, her body and her intellect, and the more that he complains about his loveless marriage, the more Swanna falls. Dennis is no longer just Swanna’s one way ticket to New York, he has successfully groomed her.

We have seen similar stories before. A young girl is taken advantage of by an older man, who assures her she looks and acts much older than she is. Swanna is mature, dresses provocatively, and Dennis could have never known that she was only fourteen! Yes, it is referenced throughout that Swanna excels at school and has been forced to grow up quickly, due to her dysfunctional family, but as we see her sneaking glasses of kool-aid, longing for ice-cream sandwiches, having emotional outbursts, making up outlandish lies and losing her virginity, it is very clear to the reader than Swanna is fourteen. One of Dennis’ friends even comments that Swanna is likely ‘not legal’ yet, making it clear that Dennis’ assertions that no man could possibly know how young Swanna is, were lies. Whether Dennis lies to flatter Swanna, or because he is lying to himself, is unimportant. Dennis is no different than the characters we see in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb and Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney. All of these adults try to justify their perverted desires by shifting the blame onto the victim. However, what is different about Swanna in Love is the perspective. 

While the novels I have referenced are told from the point of view of the paedophile, or a range of POVs, Swanna in Love is told solely from the victim’s perspective. Many stories of predatory age gaps rely on the shock value of the plot to draw in readers, and by forcing those readers to align themselves with the offender, the discomfort is heightened. Lolita is a horrifying read, not only because the premise of a middle aged man abducting, grooming and abusing a twelve year old girl is absolutely heinous, but because the reader is forced to see the relationship from Humbert Humbert’s POV. There is no respite or condemnation of his actions. Instead, we experience the relationship and his actions exactly as Humbert does, making us identify with him, whether we want to or not. Lamb and Putney similarly use this technique, with Lamb being an especially uncomfortable read. This is because the protagonist does not even see himself as a deviant, instead describing himself as some kind of hero. He ‘rescues’ a neglected child and takes her on a road trip to cheer her up. How kind of him! Of course, in reality he is denying his own urges, and as he continues to groom, manipulate and alienate the child throughout the novel, his intentions are undeniable. 

Swanna in Love doesn’t put the reader in this position, instead allowing us to completely empathise with our protagonist. Yes, Swanna can sometimes be quite rude to her parents and impatient, but she is a realistic portrayal of a teenager. There is no room to ponder the intentions of our protagonist, or feel a sense of shame anytime we find ourselves relating to them. We know who Swanna is, and like all children, she is deserving of safety and respect, no matter the length of her skirt or if she is the one to flirt first. As the adult in that situation, it is your responsibility to end the interaction and protect someone vulnerable, not to take advantage of their naivety, as each man does in every one of these stories.

I think that each and every novel I wrote about in this piece are impressive pieces of literature, and I admire each of them. I believe firmly that the best art does cause discomfort and contemplation, and by using such a controversial subject matter, there is no choice but to think deeply and critically about what you are consuming. On the other hand, I appreciate that Jennifer Belle managed to create something different in this canon. The story remains uncomfortable and the characters are just as abhorrent, but we are also given moments of reprieve, as Belle draws us into her description of upper class life in 80s New York, rural summer camps and school girl fantasies. For such a dark topic, Belle often writes with such whimsy. The character of Swanna is quick witted and sarcastic, making her a joy to read. The book is also full of pop culture references, from Bob Dylan, I Love Lucy, Edward Albee, Barry White, Billy Joel, S.E. Hinton and Andy Warhol. Swanna in Love is unique because it has a bittersweet quality, an authenticity, and relatability. Where Lolita does not give the reader a chance to breathe, Swanna in Love brings us back around by letting Swanna fawn over snowglobes in a gift shop, the rock she and her summer camp crush carved their names into and space-themed diners. Jennifer Belle has somehow managed to create a story that is equal parts horrifying, as it is endearing, and I think that is quite a feat.

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