Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, you will surely be aware of Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy Swallows Universe (HarperCollins2018). The eye-catching hot pink and orange cover (with the legendary blue wren) and the intriguing title have graced every bookstore, media outlet and library for months now. Trent is a staff writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine and has won awards for his journalism. Now he can add a whole swath of other award wins and short-listings to his belt following the huge success of this story which is part fiction, part fact, and total entertainment.
The book is narrated by Eli Bell, who grows up in the suburbs of Brisbane in the eighties with a mother who is eventually incarcerated and a stepfather who is one of the state’s biggest heroin dealers. Eli’s older brother, August, doesn’t speak due to a past trauma concerning their father, who is also a damaged character with his own problems. Rather, August communicates by writing words in the air with his finger. Together the boys survive their childhood – just – despite being regularly babysat by an infamous criminal (real-life notorious Boggo Road escapee Slim Halliday) and despite experiencing a host of traumatic events ranging from pursuit by the drug dealer Tytus Broz and his evil henchmen, to a friendship with an assortment of Vietnamese drug lords, to a house with a secret basement and a single red telephone. Most of this would seem unbelievable except for the fact that – according to Trent Dalton – much of the content of the book is based on his own real life. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
It is easy to see why this story has captured the hearts of so many people – Eli and August are vulnerable and likeable characters and we are cheering for them from the very start of the novel. Eli’s friendships with unlikely heroes – such as the real-life Houdini Slim Halliday (with an unexpected moral compass), Eli’s own flawed father (who has done things he is ashamed of but is trying so hard to make amends), his drug-using mother and stepfather (who somehow bind the family together with love despite it all), and his brother August (who is drawn with a touch of magic realism and an almost unreal sense of whimsy) – each of these relationships is full of emotion, poignancy and tender moments. Eli breaking into Boggo Road Gaol to visit his mum on Christmas Day is one of the most touching prison escapades (INscapades?) of all time. Eli’s chaste and distant romantic crush on a local journalist is endearing, as is his own naïve but determined journalistic ambition. Eli’s boyhood and his adolescent struggle to navigate his unusual family, his search for self-identity and his dream of ‘being a good man’ are painfully familiar. But it is the big-hearted themes of this novel that carry away the reader: love, friendship, sacrifice, family, betrayal, loyalty and forgiveness. The inexplicable and indefatigable joyousness despite hard-scrabble poverty and hard times. The tenderness underlying tragedy. The kindness that survives brutality. The optimism and hope that punctuates this story at every turn, despite the most severe obstacles. The book begins and ends with the words: ‘Your end is a dead blue wren.’ This apocryphal line, along with the title, Boy Swallows Universe, are cryptic, and set the stage for curiosity and wonder.
This is a book with engaging characters that will appeal to many readers. My only two (small) criticisms are firstly that the ending felt a little rushed (but perhaps that was because I didn’t want the book to end, and I would have liked to have spent as much time with older Eli as I did with younger Eli). Secondly, I had heard Trent talk so frequently on the author circuit – before I read the book – that I had trouble recalling where his real life ended and Eli Bell’s life began. Sometimes I’d read something in the book (where Eli loses a body part, as an example) and it would jar me out of the story because I know it is not true of the author. But this is a problem only created because the book has been so successful and Trent Dalton has now been interviewed so many times that his childhood and that of his fictional character Eli have become inextricably entwined. And to counter this, in interviews, Trent does talk freely about how much of the book is fiction and how much is fact, for example that August is an amalgam of his three older brothers. He most interestingly commented that of course any autobiographical story is only – of necessity – told from the perspective of one person, and that much of any recollection is coloured by biased memories, and told through the shifting prism of the experiences of the individual telling the story. But as I said, these are small criticisms of what is an absolutely delightful and fantastical book, full of ideas and endearments, with a touch of magic realism, and a sense of untrammelled joy and optimism despite the odds. Eli and August Bell and their strange family are destined to become part of Australian literary legend, and this book is homage to people who live vastly different lives to what many of us experienced growing up, or could ever imagine; through comprehension and meaning, this story celebrates the similarities of lives rather than exploiting the differences.