Boy Swallows Universe, the debut novel for Walkley award winning journalist, Trent Dalton is the most dynamic book I have read in a long time. As you would expect, beautifully written, it covers issues of drug use and trafficking, domestic violence and brutality at an extreme level, but told through the eyes of teenaged Eli, the lens is refreshing, humorous at times and devastating at others.
Filled with fantastic characters like August, Eli’s older brother who doesn’t speak after a traumatic childhood event but ‘was everything back then. Mum, dad, uncle , grandma, priest, pastor, cook’, and kept doing it because he ‘seemed to know some secret about it all, that it was all just a phase’; their mum who just wants to be normal, suburban, help out at their school; Lyle, their mother’s boyfriend whose parents escaped death camps, and tries to be a dad to the boys despite his involvement in illicit drugs; Slim, ‘the Taxi Driver Killer’, who babysits the boys now he is out of prison, while their mother and Lyle are out dealing in heroin, but tells the boys they have gone to the movies; Alex Eli’s pen pal from prison and sergeant-at-arms of the Rebels outlaw motorcycle gang who told Eli of his childhood where he was ‘intimidated by boys in sewage tunnels and of the violence that ensued’; Tytus Broz, Lyle’s boss and Iwan Krol, the thug who does Boz’s bidding.
Eli’s narration of his life is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact – his mother and Lyle didn’t forget his ‘eighth birthday, as such, just sleeping through it, that kind of thing. Booby-trap syringes and shit. You’d creep into their bedroom to wake them up and tell them it was Easter, hop onto their bed like the joyful seasonal bunny and cop a junk needle in your kneecap. August made me pancakes’; ‘the fungus-green loaf of bread that had been sitting in the fridge for what August and I had tracked at forty-three days’; his mother’s ‘thirty-year slideshow of violence and abandonment and dormitory homes for wayward Sydney girls with bad dads’; that ‘the average street grunt suburban drug dealer is not too far removed from the common pizza delivery boy’; and ‘more cartons of mid-strength beer in Bracken Ridge mean less Bracken Ridge mums presenting before Dr Benson in the Barrett Street Medical Centre with split eye sockets’.
I loved the way many of them were avid readers, even the most hardened criminals having huge libraries, challenging the stereotype about books and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, like Slim who ‘after years of good behaviour … was given the role of prison librarian, which allowed him to share his love of literature and poetry with increasingly interested inmates’. Many of them encouraged Eli’s love of reading and writing. His father gave him block of A4 paper to ‘burn this house down or set the world on fire’.
Eli ‘never really considered heroin empire building as part of my life plan’, aspires to live in the leafy suburb of The Gap, wants to be a journalist and win the heart of Caitlyn Spies, a reporter for local papers.
Set in the 1980s the issues are still as relevant today as they were then, and will remain so, making it what I believe will become a modern classic. The time is exquisitely reflected in TV shows, politics and great descriptions that take you back – ‘Tang and green cordial high from afternoon tea, their tongues still buzzing with the sweet elixir of the cream inside a Monte Carlo biscuit’.
The writing, his choice of words, were just delightful – ‘It’s been raining and the sky is grey and a rainbow arches over Lancelot Street, promising everybody here a beginning and an end in seven perfect colours’; ‘eyes that look like the lilypad-fringed waters of the Enoggera’; ‘when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves’; ‘I breathe deep and smell it and I swear I can smell that ink because maybe they’re all on deadline and the presses are already running and I’m gonna be part of that place somehow, some day, I just know it’; and ‘Batman was just a bit player, maybe, but he acted well in the grand production of The Extraordinary and Unexpected Yet Totally Expected Life of Eli Bell’.
It challenges what makes a good and a bad person, that ‘trauma and the effects of trauma can change the way people think. Sometimes it can make us believe things that are not true. Sometimes it can alter the way we look at the world. Sometimes it can make us do things we normally would not do’, acknowledging that ‘a war of words and memories and moments, [can be] just as damaging to a growing boy’s brain, one could say, as anything on the Western Front’. The characters are multi-dimensional making us stop pre-judging and look beyond the values we hold dear about certain people. It explores what the world throws at us, and then the choices we make and the paths we take that can change our lives through ‘timing, planning, luck, belief’. That sometimes it takes just one person who believes in you, sees something in you, to turn your life around and that the little things can make a big difference.