BOOK REVIEW: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

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Boy Swallows Universe is a bird with many feathers and Dalton manages to pluck them without making too much of a mess.

The novel manages to balance remarkably Australian black humour, ‘80s pulp and pop fiction styles, and some truly horrific and gore-filled scenes. With all these clashing styles, you would think this novel would be a mess, but yet at over 500 pages, it remains a well-oiled machine.

Set in various suburbs of Brisbane, the book manages to capture the essence of the City. Drug-fuelled violence, but still room for a laugh. We follow an estranged family that has found themselves in the middle of a war between rival drug gangs, Tytos and Bich.

And while not every character is addicted to illicit substances, each has some fatal flaw they need to work out. Dalton manages to handle these narratives with a sense of creativity and an unexpected light-heartedness.

However, the standard beginning middle end plotting, along with the family-orientated nature of his plotting reminds me of early Home and Away. Take for instance Slim, who is the shady but wise older friend of the family, who has a dark past and, as we find out later, a mortal disease. Or Angus, the mute brother, who only talks to Eli, the protagonist, in the later chapters of the book and has been hiding his voice as an act of either protection or protest.

These narratives can come across as soapy. They do, however, juxtapose this quite well with some of the darker scenes, like the flashback of Eli’s mother trapped in her room coming down from heroin addiction. This scene was truly haunting and had an almost Stephen King tinge to it.

However, the disparate influences of the novel can also feel like a burden and be somewhat incohesive although maybe that was the author’s intention?

Take, for instance, the scenes where Eli’s father is recovering from his drug and alcohol addiction, while also keeping up with his favourite novels. This vignette has a delightfully macabre feel. But shortly after that, there is an almost comically written gang war between stereotypical Asian Australians. This incoherence in style affects the emotional impact of the novel’s final chapters.

A smaller criticism is that Dalton’s wits can be a little jarring. Many of his one-liners can come off as cringy and/or unnecessary. With the paperback being more than 500 pages long, this can start to get a bit tiresome.

A big winner at the Australian Book Industry Awards, at one stage, several critics were lauding this novel as a Booker Prize contender. But I don’t think it stands up to the quality of Rushdie or Atwood two of the other finalists this year. There is, however,  a lot of quality in this novel and Dalton certainly has a lot of potential.

3.5/5 stars.

Boy Swallow Universe by Trent Bolton is published by Harper Collins, PB, 496 pages. RRP $29.99.

You can follow IA intern Michael Williams on Twitter @hossglop.

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