Boy Swallows Universe, written by Trent Dalton, is the best Australian written book I have read in years. The gritty story encapsulates desperation, disadvantage, crime, drug addiction and family dysfunction, as well as criminal underworlds and prison life, all in one story about two brothers struggling to find their identity amongst it all.
Eli and Augustus are teenage brothers living in Australia in the 1980s amongst the heroin craze that hit the country. Coming from a low socio-economic family with a convicted murderer and prison breaker as a babysitter, mentor and best friend, Eli is trying to understand where he fits into the world. His mother and her partner are his beloved family, they both deal heroin in high quantities and live amongst the underworld. His brother Augustus chooses not to talk due to trauma and not wanting to give away his secrets – which are unique and far fetched beliefs about his own soul and rebirth. Their biological father is an alcoholic who almost killed the boys when they were young – an event they both remember vividly.
When their mother goes to prison Eli breaks in to say hello – and the brothers return to their fathers care. Throughout the book the story of their lives unfold, and that of their parents. Eli has goals and dreams – to be a journalist. Following this path places him on a terrible truth finding mission which leads to further extreme violence and graphic tales of revenge within the underworld.
The book manages to deal in a realistic, sometimes confronting and always violent way with domestic violence, drug use, decapitation, the underworld and how people live day to day in disadvantage, trying to keep their heads above water. The characters are beautifully written – Slim the murdering babysitter is shown as the dichotomy that he is – kind, loving and nurturing, violent, murdering and searching.
I loved this book and it will appeal to people who like writers who use violence and graphic depictions to get the story across.