Set during the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s, A Game for Swallows takes place one evening in an East Beirut apartment building. Zeina and her little brother are waiting in the foyer of their apartment for their parents to return from visiting their grandmother in West Beirut. Bombings and sniper fire intensify in their neighborhood, and their neighbors huddle with them in what is the safest location of their building. As the neighbors arrive, Zeina tells how each came to live in the building and how the war has impacted them. All seven neighbors hope that the bombings and gunfire will end soon, but know they must come up with a contingency plan if it does not. Some realize that they cannot continue to survive in the middle of a war zone, but others are more fearful of moving to a foreign place. As hours pass, everyone worries about Zeina’s parents, and Chucri, the building’s caretaker, debates whether or not to venture out in the fighting to find them.
Zeina Abirached’s graphic novel gives a glimpse of daily life in the middle of a war zone. Though many of them have suffered greatly, the characters manage to stay optimistic while realistically dealing with the challenges that surround them. The standout character is heroic yet tired Chucri who risks his life to bring food, water, and electricity to the residents of his building. Abirached shows the importance of community as neighbors come together to comfort and support one another through an incredibly difficult time.
A Game for Swallows is bound to draw comparisons to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but it really should not. They are akin in their theme of survival during political upheaval. Both are set in the Middle East and told through the eyes of children. However, Abirached’s novel is very different in its single day setting. You do not see the impact this war has on Zeina and her brother. You get a snapshot of the characters, their fears and tension, but there is very little of the character development you see in Persepolis, which spans over years. A Game for Swallows is more plot-driven as the reader nervously waits with the neighbors to find out if the children’s parents are alive. Abirached also differs in her highly detailed, beautiful illustrations, which are much more expressive than those in Persepolis.
I am surprised that School Library Journal recommends this graphic novel for grades 5 and up. Though there is no objectionable material in this work, I doubt many fifth graders can empathize with the struggles of the adult characters. Abirached gives ample historical notes and maps throughout the story, but the reader still needs some political and social context to fully appreciate this work. For more older, more informed readers, A Game for Swallows gives a touching portrait of community during wartime.
Grades 9 and up