I was describing the plot of Boy Swallows Universe by Australian author Trent Dalton to Honey-Bunny, who said, “That sounds depressing.” I had to laugh, because the story I was describing did sound depressing, even though it isn’t. Despite all of the terrible things the narrator and his family endure Boy Swallows Universe is full of hope and joy. Not only that, the story is funny and clever and most surprisingly of all, based on the author’s own life.
The story starts in the mid 1980s with twelve year old Eli Bell who lives with his family in a rough Brisbane suburb. While Eli and his brother August’s drug-addicted mother and heroin dealing stepfather Lyle are out doing business the boys are babysat by Slim Halliday, the most infamous criminal to ever break out of Brisbane’s Boggo Road Jail. The family are poor, surrounded by violence and are prone to bad luck but they genuinely love and care for each other.
When gangster Tytus Broz caught Lyle making drug deals on the side of their own arrangement, his henchman dragged Lyle out of the family home never to be seen alive again. During the attack Eli’s mother was beaten up and Eli’s lucky forefinger with the freckle on the knuckle was chopped off. Eli woke up in hospital to learn that Tytus had arranged for their home to be raided by the police which caused his mother to be sent to jail for two years. Eli and August went to live with their alcoholic father in his Housing Commission house.
Elis and August are both extraordinary characters but August has a kind of magic about him. August is mute and writes his messages in the air for others to read. Some of his messages are prophecies which play out throughout the story.
Slim, who is based on a real person, is Eli’s best mate as well as his babysitter. He teaches Eli important life lessons, and put particular emphasis on Eli to learn to watch what is going on around him closely and to remember details. This trait becomes more and more important as Eli grows up and attempts to become a crime writer for Brisbane’s newspaper, The Courier-Mail.
I’m still not sure how this story about a family living in horrific conditions, who struggled with domestic violence, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, surrounded themselves with criminals and involved themselves in criminal activities also managed to be so joyful, but it is. The language the family use is when speaking is often profane but their love of reading is a joy to read about.
My only complaint about this story is that I thought the ending was implausible.
However, the writing in Boy Swallows Universe is poetic, the characters are enthralling, the story is fascinating and I loved it. Several weeks after our conversation a workmate gave a copy of Boy Swallows Universe to Honey-Bunny saying that it was the best book he had read during 2018. I’m really looking forward to hearing her opinion of the book.