In June 2018, journalist Trent Dalton had his first novel released to cries of “next Australian classic!” Many of the initial reviews seemed to focus on the book cover. For this old cynic that immediately raised red flags……..
Boy Swallows Universe tells the story of Eli Bell, 8, and brother Augustus, 9, who has not spoken for several years following their mother’s escape from their father. Frankie, the boys mother, states that “the universe stole her boy’s words”.
The book also begins with a hook -“ Your end is a dead blue wren “ – which did nothing to alleviate my concerns. We then launch into the warm relationship between the boys and Arthur “Slim” Halliday, in real life a criminal known as “the Houdini of Boggo Road Gaol”. Eli is aware of Slim’s reputation and criminal history and questions how then this old gentleman can still be so kind and warm. Thus begins Eli’s search for what makes a “good man”…..
(For non Queenslanders Boggo Road Gaol sits on the fringe of Brisbane CBD. Most of the area has been redeveloped for yuppie high rise though the main block still stands and remained in use as a correctional facility till the late 80s and has an appalling history dating back to days of the penal colony. Last year I sat in the courtyard watching Shawshank Redemption surrounded by razor wire. It is a horrible place, an evil place, and the cells tell of unspeakable things. Even less than forty years ago the only bathroom facilities consisted of a bucket. That developers are chasing this property for bars, eateries and boutique accomodation is hilarious as the entire site has a truly God awful vibe.)
Back to the book.
Set in the outer suburbs of Brisbane in the early 1980’s the setting is familiar and nostalgic. Add Contrived to my list of disappointments.
Frankie is weaned off drugs by Lyle, her de facto, who is dealing drugs within the neighbourhood and mixing it with the Vietnamese drug Lords and includes the boys on these ventures. In an attempt to be a “good man” and to improve the lot of his partner and step sons he starts doing drug deals on the side which leads to his “disappearance” and Frankie’s incarceration.
Eli and Augustus are shipped off to their Dad, who they don’t know, who lives in a Housing Commission pocket in Bracken Ridge. Robert is an alcoholic who at one stage, in despair, drove his car into a lake with the boys in the back seat.
The boys grow up witnessing domestic violence, gang wars, racial conflict, drugs and murder, and Eli even breaks into Gaol on Christmas Day to see Frankie with the help of an ex-con and “good man”.
Are you depressed yet?
Surprisingly, the mood is quietly optimistic with the boys watching over each other and navigating their awful world, and as they age we learn of their dreams. Augustus wants to paint and give back to the world, and Eli wants to be a crime writer. He certainly has the personal experience down pat
Of course, there is a girl involved who sees the good in Eli, and both lads survive and grow from their crummy existence.
After being stabbed by an enforcer in the employ of a Mr Big, who is actually much respected in the local community ( and involved with the step fathers “disappearance” – think jar and formildahyde – as well as the kidnaping of a young boy) Eli fades into his past and dreams of his friend, Slim.
“Get going” he says “ you’re running outta time”.
“Do your time, hey Slim?”
He nods. “Before it does you”, he says.
Eli gains work at the local newspaper and Augustus wins a citizenship award. They are both on the way to becoming good men.
Since finishing this book I’ve been interested enough to read further about the author. This is Dalton’s story. This is Dalton’s truth, which made the novel so much more fascinating. Slim Halliday was a family friend, Dalton grew up in a decidedly dysfunctional family, and he worked for the local paper.
Dalton says of his novel – It is essentially a way I have honestly tried to approach life: Just take it in. Don’t just write about one thing, take it all in. Take every last aspect, take all the dark, take all the light, take the whole universe in. That’s what the kid in the book is doing, just going for it. That can be dangerous, but I love when anyone does that, just owns it. That’s what helps us survive.”
A good coming-of-age read despite its unsettling content, and (sadly) very Australian.