Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe (#BookReview)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeTwo books came to mind as I was reading Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy swallows universe. One was Steve Toltz’s out-there book about fathers and sons, A fraction of the whole (my review), and the other was Tim Winton’s Breath (my post), which explores what it is to be a good man, but more on these anon.

I had three reasons for wanting to read the book. Firstly, it was my reading group’s first book of the year, and secondly, it was recommended by two people whose literary tastes often match mine, my brother and an ex-reading group friend. Finally, there was its Brisbane setting. I spent six special years of my childhood in the Sandgate area of Brisbane, where, I’d read, Dalton had also lived while growing up. Fortunately, all these reasons were justified as this novel is an excellent read – engrossing in content and intriguing in style.

Boy swallows universe covers around six years of its protagonist Eli Bell’s life, starting in 1985 when he is 12 years old and living with his mother, Frankie Bell, and stepfather Lyle. He and his mute older brother August are regularly babysat by Slim (based on the real criminal, convicted murderer Arthur Ernest Halliday) while Frankie and Lyle are out dealing drugs. Slim, for all his apparent criminality, turns out to be one of the most important wise people in Eli’s life – and, while he isn’t always around as Eli grows older, it is to Slim that Eli often speaks, consciously or subconsciously, drawing on his ideas and advice, as he faces life’s challenges. Eli’s relationship with Slim is just one of the threads and refrains that hold this big book together.

a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic

Terrible things happen in the book – and Eli and August are pushed around, buffeted by the things that happen in the adult world and over which they have little or no control. Part way through the book, having lived most of their lives with Frankie and Lyle in Darra (Brisbane’s southwest), they find themselves dumped with their damaged alcoholic father Robert Bell, whom they don’t know, and who lives in Bracken Ridge (Brisbane’s north in the Sandgate electorate). While Frankie and Lyle, for all their illegal doings, provide a generally stable home-life, the one provided by Robert is erratic, affected by his alcoholic binges. And yet, here too, the two resourceful boys find love – and more, support.

All this probably suggests to you a straightforward book about dysfunctional families, of which there are many these days. But, you would be wrong, because wrapped around the domestic is a story of drug dealing, drug double-dealing and violence, that takes this book into a whole other realm. In fact, the best way to describe it is as a genre-bending coming-of-age crime novel with a touch of magic. You with me?

Now, I’m going to shift gear a bit and return to those two books I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The book’s opening line is “Your end is a dead blue wren”, and we soon discover that these words have been written in air by August, who is sitting on their brown brick fence while Eli is being taught to drive by Slim. There’s a bizarre edge to all this which, in addition to the fact that the book is mostly about men and boys, fathers and sons, made me think of Toltz’s A fraction of the whole. However, while Toltz’s “bizarre” lies more in the absurd area, Dalton’s is more magical. There’s a red telephone in a secret room, for example, that always seems to ring when Eli is around. Who is at the other end? August at one point says it is he, but is it really? It doesn’t really matter, in fact, because the phone seems to be more about deflecting or, perhaps, relocating fear and trauma than about reality. It works because Eli’s voice and the sort of jaunty in-the-moment tone make it work.

More interesting to me, though, is the link with Winton’s Breath. They are very different books. For a start, Breath is more novella, while Boy swallows universe verges on the big, baggy monster. But, both books are fundamentally about what makes a good man – and, in neither case is the answer simple. In fact, it comes more often than not from flawed, if not sometimes bad, men. From early on in Dalton’s novel, Eli asks various men – family, friends, criminals, strangers – “are you a good man?” Many are surprised and know not what to answer. Gradually though Eli puts together his own picture from their answers and bevaviours, until, near the end, he says (addressing Slim in his mind):

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy … Do what is human.

Now, before I get onto the writing, a bit about this genre-bending novel’s plot. As I mentioned above, the novel’s plot-line relates to drug double-dealing. This results, at the end, in quite a suspenseful, page-turning adventure that was much enjoyed by many in my reading group. But, not so much by me who finds reading action pretty boring. Indeed, if I have one question about the book, it’s whether it really needs the final chase. I think the point would have been made had the novel concluded just before it – but that final adventure will help the novel adapt well to film, and to a film that many will want to see, so I won’t be too churlish about it.

And, anyhow, it’s a small criticism because I greatly enjoyed the book. It is so well constructed. Little details dropped in one place are picked up in another; little verbal refrains recur adding both poetry and meaning without being heavy-handed. Even the curious, often cryptic, three-word chapter headings, like “Boy writes words”, “Boy steals ocean”, and “Boy masters time”, are explained late in the book when the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words.

There’s also lovely descriptive, sometimes lightly satirical writing, such as this from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There’s two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they’ll form tonight’s signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they’re missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They’re so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

Then, of course there’s the characterisation, and the first person voice. Eli is such a kind and likeable character. His coming-of-age is a tough one, but he’s positive, loving, open-minded and willing to learn. He’s also courageous. It could almost be schmaltzy except that you see the grit and know that he has been tested. More cynical readers might think Eli is too good to be true, but the book’s light tone and touch of magic remind us that this is not social realism. It’s “true” to the heart of what Eli (and I believe Dalton) experienced, but it’s not fact. It’s about surviving trauma. Dalton has, I’d say, found a perfect recipe for conveying dysfunction and accompanying trauma while also showing how it can be mentally and spiritually survived.

A good read, and a meaningful book that got my reading group off to a rip-roaring start for 2019.

Trent Dalton
Boy swallows universe
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2018
ISBN: 9781460753897

46 thoughts on “Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universe (#BookReview)

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  2. Brava, WG! Brava! This was my book-of-the-year last year. You have outlined its essence so well. And yes, I saw its filmic qualities, too – and that final rollicking (in its own way) ending was perfect, I thought! Trent Dalton writes beautifully in his Weekend Australian magazine sketches – with heart and compassion – and with insight!

    • Thanks Jim. I’m in the minority about that scene I know but it’s minor issues n terms of my appreciation of the book. I don’t read the Australian but would love to read some of his articles.

      • I should explain that it’s the Travel, Review Pages and the Weekend Magazine which induce me to read Murdoch Press – no other reason! News pages so much rubbish – generally speaking. They get glanced at – then into the recycling – and it is ONLY the Weekend Australian – none other of that stable!

        • Fair enough Jim. I should consider that too but I know me… I would start to hoard the papers, take clippings etc. My life is simpler, though perhaps poorer, without them. Though maybe you can get just the Weekend Australian digitally?

  3. I’m in agreement with you on this book. I loved it too – the voice, the quirkiness,the magical realism, its heart. And like you I found the final scenes a bit over-the-top and unnecessary. I’m also not a lover of ‘action’ scenes in writing or, I might add, in film. But never mind, the rest of the book more than made up for it.

    • Thanks Denise… I’m so glad you agree. It’s not that that last scene was bad but that we didn’t need it. As you say, the rest of the book was so great to read it doesn’t really matter.

  4. So pleased (and relieved!) you appreciated it, Sue. I actually class it as one of my favourite Australian novels. Can’t wait to reread it and note some of the sentences that just blew me away with their quirky poetic description.

    • You doubted your recommendation Marie!? Seriously though, it was a great read. With you and my brother loving it I felt it was a good bet. We discussed “best” Australian novels in reading group as the result of your discussion with Janet.

      And you’re right about the writing. So many sentences and phrases that I would have loved to share.

  5. Terrific commentary on this book. As you mention, it sounds very different. Among other things, the characters seem unique. I am also do not really like reading about action. I usually get nothing out of such writing.

    • Oh thanks, Theresa. I’d love to read the less than impressive review. There were 9 at my reading group and they can be tough about books, but all were won over by this one, even where they were uncertain at the beginning, but I can imagine it would not be to everyone’s tastes.

        • Thanks Theresa (I’ve embedded the link but it’s still there!). (I “know” Amanda, as you say, from her wonderful work on our Challenge.)

          Anyhow, I’ve read her post. Fair enough. She doesn’t fully detail why it didn’t work for her I think, so perhaps it’s one of those situations where something just doesn’t click and you can’t quite explain it. A bit like how I responded to the current movie, The Favourite, which everyone seems to love. When I try to pinpoint my reasons, it doesn’t really make sense, even to me, because everything I say is something I like elsewhere. All this is to say, I think you probably would enjoy this novel even if you and Amanda usually agree!!

  6. Book group is off to a great start for the year! What an interesting sounding book. I like the mix of genre elements. Is it me or do more and more authors seem to be trying their hand at doing this? It’s a trend I like, I must say. The book’s cover is also lovely.

    • Thanks Stefanie… Yes, we sure are.

      And yes, I think genre-bending is happening more, which is a good thing overall I think. Breaks readers and writers out of comfortable moulds doesn’t it? And, for me, can sometimes soften the edges of genres.

  7. Insightful review. Can’t wait to start the book now. At 500 pages it looked a bit daunting, but it sounds like a rollicking good read.

  8. thanks for this thoughtful review, Sue. Boy Swallows Universe is on my TBR, waiting for me to get through Adelaide Writers Week preparation. People in my circles seem to either love the book or find it unreadable – like all good books, perhaps.

    • It will be interesting to see what you think then when you get to this Angela. I was intrigued that everyone in my reading group liked it – that’s rare for “different” books like this.

      Perhaps not necessarily like ALL good books, but probably like ALL out-there/genre-bending good books?!

  9. I had much the same reaction to this book. I read it straight after Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut and was struck by the similarities though Winton is much darker. There is a lightness and joy to Boy Swallows despite the violence and bad people.

    • Oh thanks Kathryn. It’s interesting to think about “how” he managed to get that lightness isn’t it. Some in my reading group said it reminded them of Angela’s ashes – for the humour and lightness injected into a dark subject.

  10. Hi Sue, I finished reading the ‘colourful’ Boy Swallows Air yesterday. I had tried to read it about a month ago and couldn’t get in to it. I think this was because I had just read Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak;. which is also an excellent read. My niece encouraged me to give it another try, and once I got into the story I couldn’t put it down,

  11. I loved the writing (a lot!) but struggled with some of the more gruesome details. When watching violence and torture in movies, I can cover my eyes (& ears if necessary as well), but it’s hard to cover one’s eyes and keep on reading!!

    • The writing is great isn’t it? Interestingly, I’m hopeless with visual violence but can cope more with it written because somehow I can pretend not to imagine it. Does that make sense? I don’t like it, but can manage it more!

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  14. I see this has just been shortlisted for the ABIA 2019 award. Think it will win? Netgalley seems confident since they are sending out a promotion calling it Australia’s Book of the Year….

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