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Cygnet by Season Butler

Published by Harper on June 25, 2019

The unnamed narrator of Cygnet complains that she is “marooned on a secluded island with no parents and instead of getting to do whatever I want I’ve got a zillion old grand-dorks bossing me around.” Her perspective as the only teen on an island of seniors is the source of the novel's sharp humor.

The narrator was sent to live on Swan Island with her grandmother. Social Services took her from her parents, making Swan Island a slightly better choice than juvenile prison. It is also a good place for the narrator to come of age as she confronts, more pressingly than most teens must, the choices that will determine her future.

The island itself is something of a prison, a place where elderly people isolate themselves from (and are passively hostile to) anyone who isn’t elderly. Most of the island’s inhabitants call the 17-year-old narrator Kid. She calls them Wrinklies. The Kid is from the Mainland, which everyone on Swan calls the Bad Place. The island is rapidly eroding; Kid awaits the day when her grandmother’s home washes into the sea. A nearby island is exploding because of improperly buried waste. Whether the mainland or the islands merit the term “Bad Place” is a matter of perspective.

After her grandmother dies, the Kid stays in her grandmother’s house, waiting for her parents to pick her up — every day, she convinces herself that their arrival is imminent — while working for a wealthy islander who has hired her to digitize the woman’s family history, editing as she goes to make it better. The Kid has amusing takes on her employer’s edited life, including the enlargement of her breasts in family photos and movies to match the results of the woman’s boob job. The woman reviews the Kid’s work long enough to replace her real memories with the better ones that the Kid has created.

In her free time, the Kid visits a woman who had a stroke, imagining herself as the woman’s lost mind. She has monthly sex with a boy named Jason she regards as her imaginary boyfriend. Jason comes to Swan to supply drugs to the Wrinklies (weed for glaucoma, acid for nostalgia). The Kid is in denial about her feelings, including her teenage jealousy, just as she is in denial about the parents who have effectively abandoned her.

The Kid’s mind is a maze of contradictory thoughts. I love the way her consciousness streams when she’s talking to Wrinklies. They take so long to express a thought that Kid has a dozen thoughts of her own before they finish a sentence. Some of her thoughts are hilarious; the rest, as thoughts tend to be, are on a spectrum from mundane to profound.

In the tradition of coming-of-age novels, the end of Cygnet is the beginning of a life. It might be a hard life, but the Kid gains strength and self-awareness from living on the eroding island, interacting with aging people who have gathered together to die. It might take them another decade or two before their lives end, but the Kid has scores of decades to live before she will be begin to live in decline. The island will be gone before she is ready to live there because everything erodes, everything changes. That’s the one unchangeable fact about life.

Cygnet mixes humor with touching moments in the lives of both the Kid and the seniors who tolerate (or resent) her presence. Season Butler creates a strong sense of place in Swan Island. She gives the Kid a full personality, slowing revealing facts about her childhood that help the reader understand her fears and insecurities, as well as her dreams and fantasies.

Growing up, Cygnet suggests, is about putting aside illusions of safety and embracing uncertainty. The Kid does that with such endearing anxiety that the reader can only cheer for her as she takes her first steps toward an unpredictable future.


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