Beautiful Books: The Swallows Uncaged: A Narrative in Eight Panels

October 15, 2015

Elizabeth McLean asks that when you read her new story collection,  The Swallows Uncaged, you picture a Vietnamese folding screen. In eight panels, the screen has delineated parts, but these nonetheless bleed into and inform their neighbours. McLean says Vietnamese history is much like this. To help evoke the screen, designer Natalie Olsen has come up with quite a unique cover design: take a look at our feature and see how gorgeous this book is, both inside and out.

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“Picture a Vietnamese screen. You unfold it across the floor and eight panels come into view. You step back to take a look, and in the midst of the lush tropical setting you see men, women, and children in various postures. You ponder who they might be and what they might be doing.

Digesting the history of Vietnam is like that. You plough through a blurry grove of wars won and lost, catch some dates and names of generals who wrote poetry, of emperors who roused the country with bold reforms, and of adventurous Westerners who for 400 years meandered through the land. Some milestones, customs, and personages lodge themselves in your mind and stir your imagination.

You telescope the last 1000 years of the history of Vietnam into a few singular episodes that were heroic or compelling, and want to tease some stories out of them. You begin to feel for the ordinary people who lived behind the curtain of history and they tempt you to recreate the family clans they begat, the humiliations they endured, or the love affairs they fancied. The hard spine of history holds, the eight panel screen comes alive, and you succumb to the pleasure of writing fiction.”

–Elizabeth McLean, from the Prelude of The Swallows Uncaged: A Narrative in Eight Panels

 

In addition to being a writer, Elizabeth McLean is an accomplished visual artist and there is evidence of her artistic sensibilities in the structure of her prose. The Swallows Uncaged is structured around the notion of a Vietnamese eight-panel screen, with the interconnected narratives unfolding in the same way a screen would. Each panel speaks to a specific moment, yet all of them are linked.

At Freehand Books, we wanted to incorporate the strong visual elements of McLean’s manuscript into the book design, and make sure the structure of the writing was reflected in the physical object. Enter Natalie Olsen, of Kisscut Design, who worked with the metaphor of the eight-panel screen to create an extraordinarily innovative cover.

At first glance, the cover is fairly standard, but with lavish, edge-to-spine french flaps. However, on closer examination, you notice score lines that travel vertically down the front and back covers, as well as the french flaps. If you crease the cover along score lines, the cover will unfold into and eight-panel screen. 

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We think Natalie Olsen did a beautiful job at honouring Elizabeth McLean’s fiercely original stories with her innovative design.

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We'd like to thank Elizabeth McLean and Anna Boyar at Freehand Books for sharing the beautiful The Swallows Uncaged with us.


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