Trent Dalton has spun a tale of heartbreak and tenderness that is luminous and beautiful, and totally unforgettable in Boy Swallows Universe. I will always remember Eli Bell, a ‘boy with an old soul and an adult mind’, who tells us his story with honesty and compassion.
It’s 1985, Eli is twelve years old and is living in Darra.
‘Darra is a dream, a stench, a spilt garbage bin, a cracked mirror, a paradise, a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup filled with prawns…Darra is a girl washed down a drainpipe, a boy with snot slipping from his nose so ripe it glows on Easter night, a teenage girl stretched across a train track waiting for the express to Central and beyond, a South African man smoking Sudanese weed, a Filipino man injecting Afghani dope next door to a girl from Cambodia sipping milk from Queensland’s Darling Downs. Darra is my quiet sigh, my reflection on war, my dumb pre-teen longing, my home.’
Eli lives with his older brother Gus, who stopped speaking when he was six, his mother Fran, who is a heroin addict and his step-father Lyle, who is a drug dealer….and his baby-sitter is a convicted murderer.
When his mother is sent to gaol, and his stepfather ‘disappears’, Eli and Gus are sent to live with a father they have never met. Robert is not in a good place either, drinking himself to oblivion most nights. He is living in absolute squalor and filth.
Dalton’s description of Robert’s bathroom is so visceral, I don’t recommend reading this while having your lunch! However, you can feel Robert’s pain, and his struggle to be the father he wants to be – he wants to be a good man.
If you are looking for a theme in this extraordinary novel, this is it: what makes a good man? Who is a good man and who is a bad man, and what is the difference? This is Eli’s quest throughout the book – to find the answer to this question. As the story unfolds, you realise that Eli is a good man in the making, with a huge capacity to forgive the unforgivable.
There is so much love in this book. Not the mushy, romantic, rom-com style of love, but real love: ‘…she knew there was hardship in this true love and endurance and reward and failure and renewal and, finally, death, but never regret.’.
My copy of Boy Swallows Universe is a rainbow of post-it notes, marking passages that I love and want to remember. I cannot recommend this book highly enough (although, be warned, there is a lot of colourful language, as we are keeping company with colourful characters).
Review by Gaby Meares
Murder on a Monday Reading Group