BookBrowse Reviews Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

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Boy Swallows Universe

by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton X
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
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  • Published:
    Apr 2019, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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A marvelous, gritty coming-of-age novel set in 1980s Australia.

Debut novelist Trent Dalton has crafted an alluring and literary account of the coming-of-age of two brothers who manage to thrive despite their parents' destructive habits. Chapter titles in this substantial (464 page) novel consist of three words: "Boy Writes Words," "Boy Loses Luck," "Boy Stirs Monster," "Boy Steals Ocean," "Boy Bites Spider," "Girl Saves Boy." Energetic, often poetic prose is narrated in first-person by protagonist Eli Bell.

Eli lives in Darra (a rough, industrial suburb of Brisbane), where most residents are descended from Polish WW2 survivors or Vietnamese refugees. Eli; his brother August, known as Gus; his mum and Mum's boyfriend Lyle live in a wooden house hand-built by Lyle's father, who was a Holocaust survivor. Lyle works in a factory, and deals heroin on the side. Eli states: "…the worst thing Lyle ever did was get my mum on drugs. I guess the best thing Lyle ever did was get her off drugs, but he knows I know that the latter could never make up for the former."

Eli reveals a precocious attitude, dark humor and an aspiring reporter's knack for authentic descriptive details. He describes himself astutely: "I'm thirteen years old and like any self-respecting Queensland teenager with a deeper voice and bigger balls I want to experience new things, like spending this next month of Saturdays with Lyle on his heroin runs."

While the adults in this novel are consistently unreliable, the bond between brothers remains mutually-supportive and solid throughout. Gus has prescient powers, which sometimes propel the plot. Their babysitter is Slim, an aged ex-con who functions as a kindly, surrogate grandfather.

I will remember the rainbow of old dirt wiped across Slim's windscreen through the shape of the milky moon rising into my left thumbnail, and forever more when I look into that milky moon I will remember the day Arthur 'Slim' Halliday, the greatest prison escapee who ever lived...taught me, Eli Bell, the boy with the old soul and the adult mind...the boy with his tears on the outside – to drive his rusted dark blue Toyota LandCruiser.

When the book opens, Eli is 12 and Gus 13. Gus is selectively mute, but communicates (when he wants to) with sign language and riddles. Eli explains: "Mum says August stopped talking around the time she ran away from my dad. August was six years old. She says the universe stole her boy's words when she wasn't looking." (See Selective Mutism for more information.) The boys' alcoholic birth father lives in another suburb and has been absent from their lives since they were younger. There are references to serious trauma from earlier years, including a car accident. After Lyle goes missing, and Mum gets locked up over a drug deal gone wrong, the boys are placed with their father.

Each brother has an agenda larger than survival. Eli is determined to outwit the dealers who double-crossed Lyle and to get enough cash to buy his mom a house in a safer neighborhood. He also wants to become a crime news reporter. Entrepreneurial Gus collects donations for charitable causes and sells their father's hoarded stacks of books. The father encourages the boys in school and reading, and eventually displays other redeeming qualities. Mum does what she can to protect and love her boys before, during and after her incarceration. Mum's catchphrase in dire circumstances is "group hug," which powers the family onward despite betrayal, danger and poverty.

There are plenty of plot twists and turns during the six year span of the novel, and Dalton's characters are multi-layered and engaging; even the villains defy stereotype. Eli befriends a bully, Darren Dang, and they strategize ways to rebel from school authority. He develops a crush on Caitlyn Spies, a reporter for the local newspaper where he wants to work. Later, he focuses his attention on Tytus Broz, the shady proprietor of a prosthetic device factory called "Human Touch." Behind this facade lurks horrifying criminal behavior. Eli is determined to unmask the villain and to figure out what happened to his beloved stepdad Lyle, who was once employed by Broz.

Boy Swallows Universe calls to mind other memorable child heroes like Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. The book is geared toward an adult audience, but could certainly be appreciated by younger readers. It will likely appeal to fans of Cormac McCarthy (cited by the author as a literary influence) as well. Themes related to sibling relationships, incarcerated parents, gangs, coming-of-age, addiction and the power of imagination would spark lively classroom or book club discussions. In author interviews, Trent Dalton mentions that much of the material in the book comes from his own childhood experiences. He is an award-winning journalist who writes for the Weekend Australian Magazine. The novel has won several literary prizes in Australia, where it debuted in 2018.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

This review is from the May 1, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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