I must admit to having some trepidation reading this book as it had come with such heart-felt praise and gushing recommendations. My concern about reading it lay in not wanting to disappoint those who clearly loved the book so much by not feeling the same way. That was one reason. But I had an additional worry. I know Trent Dalton and have for years. Like he did, I work for the Courier Mail (we also share the same publisher) and have watched with admiration and pride as one of the most genuinely lovely people and incredible journalistic and writing talents I know, soared. When I discovered Trent was the author of this book everyone was talking about and then caught up with him at a dinner, I was so excited to read it, but equally nervous as well for the reasons I outline above.
Well, now I have and can I just say that all those heaping praise upon Trent and this book were beyond right in their assessment. But they were also wrong. You see, Boy Swallows Universe isn’t destined to become an Australian classic, it already is one.
The story of young Eli Bell and his wilfully mute brother, August and their traumatic, violent, disruptive, loving, cruel, imaginative childhood and young adulthood is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Equal parts disturbing, magical, evocative, hope-filled, heart-wrenching and yet beautiful, it’s also utterly enthralling.
Eli and Gus live with their mum and her boyfriend Lyle in a run-down neighbourhood in Brisbane. Their babysitter is a reformed murderer whose claim to fame, apart from being a killer, is that he managed to escape from the notorious Boggo Road jail. But Slim, as he’s called, is also a man who loves the boys and never, ever condescends to them, but imparts, with his street wisdom, lessons that Eli particularly takes to heart. Stoking the boys’ imaginations and hovering over them like a protective angel, not even Slim can prevent the tragedy and criminal changes that see the boys catapulted into situations that make the reader want to dial Social Services. But this is where Trent comes into his own. He manages to find beauty, humour and often an otherworldliness in the ugliest and saddest of situations. Not only that, but by having Eli and Gus forged in such hot fires and showing what helps them salvage something from these, he reveals the power of story (and the details) to provide an essential and nourishing counter-narrative to reality.
Not only do you fall in love with Eli, Gus and their sun-filled mother along with other less reputable characters; experience anguish on their behalf and worry about the intentions of the men who orbit around them, but you champion their actions and want to reach into the page and protect their swollen hearts and growing, spectacular minds.
I don’t want to say too much more except this book is a treasure that will continue to burrow into your heart and head long after the last page. It is realism at its rawest and most magical. It is quintessentially Australian while also managing to be universal.
Boy may swallow universe, but with this story of resilience, love, hope, vengeance and faith – in humanity’s capacity for goodness, kindness and courage, in the face of terrible misfortune and cruelty – readers will greedily consume it and be left wanting more.