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Book review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

This year I’ve read some extraordinary books written by Australian writers, from the perspective of a child, including Sofie Laguna’s The Choke and Mark Brandi’s Wimmera. Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe sits comfortably beside them as an entertaining and insightful journey into the mind of a child, living in a complex world in which adults are capable of both loving and harming children.

Set in a quiet but troubled suburb of Brisbane, Boy Swallows Universe is narrated by Eli Bell, whose friends and family are a complex group of characters. His brother has refused to speak since a childhood trauma, but writes his words in the air with his finger. His mother, a former heroin addict, is living with a drug dealer. His best friend, Slim, is a prison escapee who was locked up for killing a taxi driver.

Despite the apparent dysfunction of this situation, Eli is surrounded by love, for his mother, her boyfriend, his brother and his best friend.

It is this complexity that helps make this story far more than a glimpse of Brisbane’s underbelly. Rarely have I read of adoration such as Eli feels for his mother, despite her weaknesses and lapses in judgement.

Unlike in Sofie Laguna’s magnificent The Choke, there is never a sense that Eli is alone or without hope, even though his circumstances might seem to be dire at first glance.

It is Eli’s commitment to his family that sees him pursue justice, leading him into the path of a young reporter whom he idolises.

The voice of Eli is distinct and the story is told with the urgency of a boy reporting an exciting event to his mum. In the Words and Nerds podcast, Trent Dalton said that this urgency was a product of his writing habits – he squeezed in any writing time he could, committing words to the page in snatched moments in between other responsibilities.

This book is funny and poignant, exploring the personal reality of lives that more often feature in crime reports in the newspaper. I enjoyed the childlike perspective of Eli, the sensitive rendering of a troubled, but loving family, and the depiction of complex characters who are not what they seem.

In the podcast, Dalton said that some of the characters were taken from his own life, including Eli’s brother August and Slim, the prison escapee. He has seen that few people are entirely good or bad, and this understanding has shaped this book.

Alongside the serious issues that the book explores, I enjoyed the light relief that the sense of nostalgia that emerged throughout the book. In a similar way to that in which Brandi evoked childhood on the hot suburban streets of Australia in Wimmera, Dalton wrote about Golden eating Gaytimes, drinking Pasito soft drink and watching Romper Room, Different Strokes and Family Ties. I am a member of a generation for which those references are familiar and nostalgic. Dalton also enjoyed incorporating these elements in the book, saying that they were his favourite parts to write.

Boy Swallows Universe is well worth reading for its exploration of human nature, with all of its complexity and hypocrisy, its unique voice, its portrayal of love and loyalty, and its tense and satisfying ending.

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