Book review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 Permalink

I mentioned in my review of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart I was reading a couple of books I’d missed out on reviewing during the year prior to putting together my ‘favourite books of 2018’ post. I was keen to read books that others had consistently loved. Lost Flowers was one. And this… Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe was another. 

Book review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent DaltonBoy Swallows Universe
by Trent Dalton
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia
on June 18th 2018
Source: Purchased
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1460753895, 9781460753897
Pages: 464

Brisbane, 1983: A lost father, a mute brother, a mum in jail, a heroin dealer for a stepfather and a notorious crim for a babysitter. It's not as if Eli's life isn't complicated enough already. He's just trying to follow his heart, learning what it takes to be a good man, but life just keeps throwing obstacles in the way - not least of which is Tytus Broz, legendary Brisbane drug dealer.

But if Eli's life is about to get a whole lot more serious. He's about to fall in love. And, oh yeah, he has to break into Boggo Road Gaol on Christmas Day, to save his mum.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to avoid reading books set in Australia. I think my justification was the familiarity and the (sense of) banality of the settings. There wasn’t enough escapism. That being said of course I don’t read science fiction or fantasy books involving entire other universes either, so obviously I’m pedantic enough to rival Goldilocks and her mama bear preferences.

However, thankfully I changed my reading habits several years ago – a good thing as many of my favourite books and authors now are Australian and novels set in familiar surroundings… just as this is set in Brisbane – which was / has been home to me for large chunks of my adult life. And there’s still something kinda surreal about reading about Darra and Bracken Ridge, about The Gap and Fortitude Valley.

Dalton writes beautifully which is something I knew from his work in print media. And since the advent of social media I’ve often seen comments on the poignancy or relatability of his features and articles. I’ve read some, but (obviously) not all, though know he’s acknowledged as a gifted storyteller.

Boy Swallows Universe is beautifully written, although I’m interested to see what my mother says as she will sometimes turn around and tell me she struggled with the pacing or prose (which she did with Bridge of Clay, though I adored it). Margaret Atwood’s newer work is like that for me… I feel like I’m missing some hidden meaning or it’s a bit too erudite for me or something. Dalton’s writing didn’t feel like that but there’s an obscurity there at times which (I suspect) could alienate some readers. For me, it’s clever but not too clever for its / his own good as it’s balanced with a really down-to-earth narrative filled with quintessential Aussie pragmatism (ie. an absence of bullshit).

Which of course is something that can’t always be said for twelve year old Eli. Eli himself tells us that his brother August (Gus) is smarter, but although Eli’s friend Slim tells him he’s got the mind of an old man, the boy is not particularly socially savvy and doesn’t always know where to stop.

Which is what lands him in hot water. Gus tends to see what’s happening, knows what’s coming, but lets it happen anyway. Eli digs deeper. Wants more.

The strength of this book for me is Dalton’s prose. I could easily have earmarked line after line, paragraph after paragraph and page after page. Even deciding what to share here to demonstrate the fragile, delicate and deft beauty of his words was a struggle (and delayed this review as I procrastinated / prevaricated – ie. just felt bloody hamstrung).

Dalton’s a gifted storyteller. Like Eli. He’s observant and then he weaves those observations into a magical narrative so we can share in them and we feel as if we’re right there.

Set in mid 80s and Dalton’s descriptive prose evokes strong, almost visceral reaction in those familiar with the suburbs, environment, rituals and culture of that time.

Darra is a dream, a stench, a spilt garbage bin, a cracked mirror, a paradise, a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup filled with prawns, domes of plastic crab meat, pig ears and pig knuckles and pig belly. Darra is a girl washed down a drainpipe, a boy with snot slipping from his nose so ripe it glows on Easter night, a teenage girl stretched across a train track waiting for the express to Central and beyond, a South African man smoking Sudanese weed, a Filipino man injecting Afghani dope next door to a girl from Cambodia sipping milk from Queensland’s Darling Downs. Darra is my quiet sigh, my reflection on war, my dumb pre-teen longing, my home. pp 12-13

Although it’s Eli who fights for his mother and perhaps gives her the courage to go on at times, it’s the men in his life who make him the person he becomes. Of course there’s the ex-con, Slim… Eli’s best friend and sharer of wisdom and sordid nuggets of life. And later his father plays a belated role in the boy’s life, but it’s his stepfather who shapes Eli  during his formative years. And Eli doesn’t always realise what a gift he, his brother and mother have been given in Lyle, (aside from his drug dealing of course!). He’s a paradox in some ways and I appreciated that Dalton didn’t go down the cliched reluctant / aggressive stepfather route – as Lyle is devoted to his family.

You’re not a pussy. Don’t you ever be ashamed of crying. You cry because you give a shit. Don’t ever be ashamed of giving a shit. Too many people in this world are too scared to cry because they’re scared to give a shit. p 91

Lyle is there during pivotal moments in Eli’s life story – which this book essentially is. It’s about the boy who becomes the man, despite everything. It’s about those moments that could so easily have changed the course of Eli’s life and a reminder that we ultimately have some say in how things turn out.

And of course there’s Gus, who Eli hates, loves and idolises. Gus is an enigma and though we’re left with some unanswered questions re Gus’s role in Eli’s evolution; the mythical and mystical is done with a subtle touch which allows us to accept it and move on.

I adored this debut novel by Dalton as it hits the spot on all three fronts for me. It’s brilliantly written. Sympathetic (and I certainly sobbed at times) but not overly sentimental or schmaltzy. The story itself is well-paced. As I said, it’s essentially the story of Eli’s journey from child into adulthood and Dalton shares it in a way that’s not too detailed, but drops us in at the important moments. I should mention I found part of the story arc’s resolution a little too opportunistic, but it didn’t matter.

And finally the characters are believable to the extent they’re too real. (And I know some aren’t fictional!) Eli is delightfully complex and an inspiring narrator.

I know Dalton’s recently released a non-fiction book as well but I hope there’s more fiction to come. In the novel Slim tells Eli it’s time to stop telling everyone else’s story and start to tell his own. I wonder if Dalton received similar advice, and if so… thank god.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.


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