I recently finished reading Boy Swallows Universe and I’m compelled to break my blog drought. I want to write about it, shout about it, maybe perform some interpretive dance and definitely talk about it to anyone who will listen.
Boy Swallows Universe is the fiction debut of Walkley award winning Australian journalist, Trent Dalton, and on the face of it, appears to be a story like any other. Little black words printed on paper, hidden inside a cover. To look at it, sitting on display in a book store, or now on my own bookshelf, there is no way of knowing the extraordinary measure of this tale. But from the first page, I knew that Dalton’s novel was something special.
Boy Swallows Universe tells the story of young Eli Bell and his mute brother, August. The Bell Brothers. Born to small time criminals and drug dealers with a side of alcoholism, Eli and August see things, experience things that children shouldn’t. In the turning of the pages, the shocking truth of their lives unfolds and it would be easy to say that their parents did a terrible job, were downright dangerous and neglectful. But. BUT.
While Eli and August experience horrific trauma and their lives are placed at risk, this is not a typical story about children growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. The significant adults in their lives may have done bad things, but they also gave love.
Step-father Lyle is a curious figure. At first, he embodies the stereotypical step-father type. Hateful, angry. But there is more to him than we might expect. The same is true for the boys’ unorthodox babysitter, Slim Halliday. Slim is an accused murderer, ex-prisoner and yet strangely, both Slim and Lyle provide a life rope in the form of hope. With this life rope, Eli and August not only pull themselves out of the mire, but they also pull their parents back too.
Boy Swallows Universe is a story of the most incredible survival from the darkest of beginnings and is proof that love mixed with hope, really can conquer.
Without this love and hope, it could have so easily been a different story, as is the case for many Australian children born into deep disadvantage. Eli might have followed in the path of his parents and their associates, drinking himself into oblivion, selling drugs, kidnapping children. Boy ruined. Boy gone to hell. Universe swallows boy.
Boy Swallows Universe is part fiction, part truth. I’m intrigued to know which part is which, but there is something alluring about not knowing. If I believe that most of it is truth, then Dalton’s telling of this story is brave. If it is mostly fiction, then he is truly a fiction genius and I want to see inside his mind to uncover how he created this wonder of a story. But I know it is a mixture of both. Boy Swallows Universe is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of love and violence and I can think of few books as impactful as this.
Dalton deserves all the accolades for sharing his beautiful, tragic tale in the most magical way.
Boy Swallows Universe was first published in 2018 by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia and you should seriously stop what you’re doing, race out the door and buy a copy now.
If you’re interested in listening to Trent Dalton talk about writing, you can see him at the 2019 Perth Writers Week, but get in quick, tickets are selling as fast as his book. https://www.perthfestival.com.au/event/boy-swallows-universe