boy swallows universe

Stop everything.

This is probably the best book I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and make it your next book.

Trent Dalton writes poetically, beautifully even, but without the sort of naff flourishes that have you re-reading paragraphs to decipher the storyline (you know the stuff I mean). I was less than a chapter in before I decided that I wanted to write exactly like this.

I bought Boy Swallows Universe from the ‘Top 100 Books’ shelf at my local Big W because the cover is beautiful, and because Dalton is a Queenslander who grew up down the road from where I did (and I think I’d seen a photo of him in the local rag). I found so many elements of my childhood in this book: playing Atari, climbing through underground pipes, putting toads in the freezer, using log fences as balance-beams, being assaulted by itchy grass-seeds, watching sad crabs in restaurant fishtanks, saving Dunlop Volleys as ‘going-out’ shoes, biting patterns into potato scallops, fostering a strong appreciation for cul-de-sacs…

[gasps for breath]

I could go on.

Dalton is setting us up for an emotional rollercoaster here. Vietnamese heroin dealer (and basically kingpin of Darra), ‘Back Off’ Bich Dong perfectly posits that: “Australian childhoods are so idyllic and joyous, so filled with beach visits and backyard games of cricket, that Australian adulthoods can’t possibly meet our childhood expectations. Our perfect early lives in this vast island paradise doom us to melancholy because we know, in the hard honest bones beneath our dubious bronze skin, that we will never again be happier than we were once before.” (p. 58-9)

All the nostalgia is there, and amongst it, the most captivating, devastating yet hopeful, magical story.

Yes, there is magic in Boy Swallows Universe, a sad kind of magic that’s saved for stories that are too much; too scary, too lonely, too violent, too hopeless. [It reminded me of the kind of magic that Vonnegut uses in Slaughterhouse-Five to explore his time in a PoW camp]. My whole self aches for Eli Bell, the young protagonist who navigates haphazardly through that time of life where parents are supposed to give us stability and care. Instead, Eli’s story includes a mute-by-choice brother (August), addicted and incarcerated parents, a murderer for a babysitter (Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday), violent bullies as his play mates, a gang leader as a pen-pal, and a decapitating-drug-lord on his scent. We get a sense for exactly how grim these characters are.

Eli’s description of the thug Iwan: “Maybe he’s fifty. Maybe he’s sixty. He’s one of those hard men Lyle knows, muscular and grim – you could chop him in half and measure his age by the growth rings in his insides….the man Tytus calls Iwan shifts his eyes to a glass of beer before him, which he then grips tightly with his right hand and brings slow as a chairlift to his lips. He drinks half the glass in a single sip. Maybe the man Tytus calls Iwan is actually two hundred years old. Nobody’s ever been able to cut him in half to be sure.” (p. 110-1)

The story starts off gently painting characters, and then it changes pace to thunder to a nail-biting resolution. You’ll find heartbreak and triumph here, as Eli proves that hope can survive even in the bleakest of situations. I think his saving grace is that throughout all of the (really) bad stuff, there’s still love. Great, unswerving, impossible love. Even when things and people aren’t conventionally ‘good’.

“‘I’m a good man,’ Slim says. ‘But I’m a bad man too. And that’s like all men kid. We all got a bit o’ good and a bit o’ bad in us. The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.’” (p. 160)

I’ve read (somewhere, sorry… bad journalism) that statistically, journalists make the best writers. Write the highest-grossing books. I think it’s because they’re practiced at telling stories we can all understand, and stories that get us worked up. This checks out with Dalton, who has won a swag of awards for his journalism. This is an autobiographical element of Boy Swallows Universe, with Eli aspiring to be a journalist with the Courier Mail. And gosh – do I want to know how much more of this story is real (don’t tell me, it’ll give me nightmares)?

Read this book if you like crime stories, grew up in South-east Queensland, or if you love to read (full stop). Proceed with caution if you’re only sixteen – it gets a bit gritty.* I think the only thing that could’ve made this story better was if it had kept me guessing a little at the end (I know, I know, I’m in a minority).

I give Boy Swallows Universe 5 out of 5 cans of Kirks Sarsaparilla.

I bought this book here. If you love this as much as I did, look out for Dalton’s second novel All Our Shimmering Skies – coming out in June!

*Look, I only realised this after I gifted a signed copy to my sixteen-year-old cousin… thankfully his mother read it first and vetoed it (and she loved it by the way)

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