Boy Swallows Universe – book review

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton

Oh my God. It’s true. This extraordinary story of Eli Bell growing up in suburban Brisbane amid drug addicts and gangs and criminals and the poignancy of children making sense of the mess…this is based on his life. Trent Dalton’s. The mother he loves so much he breaks into prison to be with her at Christmas. The best friend, Slim, who shares his stories of Boggo Road prison and may (or may not) have murdered a cabbie. The Vietnamese Golden Triangle heroin dealers and their hit men. Might be easier to read not knowing these things were based on a real life.

I SO love this book. It has that rare bit of genius that I search for in fiction: a mixture of quirky but believable characters, a story that grows, an unusual setting (actually, I hated the setting), and writing so sharp it makes you bleed.

Here’s the guts of why the writing works so well. Eli Bell wants to be a journalist and waits six hours to pitch a complicated story to an editor, who says he wants the story in three words. Cook Finds Australia. Hitler Invades Poland. Oswald Kills Kennedy. Man Conquers Moon. They were complicated stories, too.

Eli can’t do it.

But Trent Dalton can. The man’s a genius. Boy Swallows Universe.

In the story the editor tells Eli his writing is too flowery, too descriptive. But Eli’s writing is lovely. So in the book, Dalton gives us both. Every chapter is a three word story: Boy Writes Words. Boy Makes Rainbow. Boy Follows Footsteps. Boy Meets Girl. Boy Parts Sea. Boy Steals Ocean. Boy Masters Time, etc. And within these headlines are Eli’s wonderfully flowery descriptions.

The tilapia has been drowned in a garlic and chilli and coriander sauce, so many exposed white bones in its charred and thorny dorsal fin that they look like the ivory keys in the warped piano organ the devil plays in hell.

August and I stand before a sprawling timber Queenslander home, raised high on tall and spindly stump legs, a house with so much aged and rickety character it feels like it’s leaning on a walking stick cracking a joke about the Irish famine.

August is Eli’s older brother. Something happened to him when their father drove them into the dam. He has a relationship with time that may, or may not be real. Like Eli, August has a way with words, although he doesn’t speak but writes in the air with his finger.

Your end is a dead blue wren, he writes.
Caitlyn Spies, he draws in the air, inexplicably, over and over.

These are magic words that hang over the story. There are also tall tales from prison, break outs and reported crimes, letters to and from an imprisoned gangland boss. Eli trains himself to observe and report and we see scenes with his level of detail: “The way you hold your chopsticks with that kink in your right forefinger. The smell of your armpits and the bong water stain on the bottom or your button-up shirt. There’s a woman sitting over there with the birthmark on her shoulder shaped like Africa… a kid over by the trout tank poking fish with a sparkler. ”

This is a fabulous book. But don’t take my word for it.

It’s the first book ever to win four ABIAs: Book of the Year, Literary Book of the Year, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year and Audio Book of the Year. It was awarded book of the year at the Indie book awards, won the 2019 MUD literary prize and NSW premier’s literary awards for debut fiction and overall fiction. It is shortlisted for the Miles Franklin (fingers crossed). It won the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and People’s Choice Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Sure the awards ain’t over yet.

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe
Trent Dalton.

Terrific read for a book club.

Author: cristinasandersblog

I'm a novelist, photographer, trail runner, tramper, traveller and blogger. For a day job, I run the Hawke's Bay events website: indieVenue.

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