Boy swallows universe by Trent Dalton
Fourth Estate, 2018. ISBN 9781460753897
(Age: 16+) Recommended. Violence, gore and extreme language. Eli and August are two brothers growing up in 1980s Brisbane and for the most part, their world and daily life experience, depicted amazingly well by the author, is instantly recognisable to those who recall the era. Perhaps not every aspect however, given that they live amongst heroin dealers and are exposed to unspeakable acts of violence inflicted as punishment and to eliminate competition.
August is the eldest, who abruptly ceased speaking years before and communicates only by invisible 'air writing' and facial expression. Eli yearns to be a newspaper reporter and develops the capacity to recognise a story at an early age. Whilst their parents undertake relatively small scale heroin deals and yearn to make the score which they believe will allow them to escape the trade, the brothers are watched over by a retired criminal Slim Halliday. Famous decades before, Slim had wasted most of his life in incarceration, much of it in solitary confinement, for the murder of a taxi driver and subsequent prison escapes.
In viewing the bleak plight of these boys who grow up in a threatening environment, surrounded by people who are either hopeless or dangerous, the reader is caused to recognise the inevitability of a life's course. Major crime is never excused or glorified in this novel, however the author crafts characters who perform according to a script determined by their parentage, geographical location, limited opportunity and exposure to sinister criminals who manipulate and exploit.
The story demands consideration of what goodness remains in people who are undoubtedly criminal, sometimes ruthlessly bad and perhaps even murderers. Do acts of kindness counter previous misdeeds? Can the worst criminals be considered 'good' if they are on your side?
Mysterious elements prevail throughout the tale and Eli follows his nose and summons what limited help is available to him in a bid to discover the truth.
I found this story to be very sad. Whilst vicious violence and cruelty is pivotal to the story, there are many poignant and moving moments. Little boys yearn for family stability and for their broken mother to be happy after stumbling from one miserable situation to the next. At the same time they enjoy a typically childish delight at the prospect of a Paddle Pop whilst existing insecurely in poverty.
Touching and amusing moments temper what could be a depressingly grim novel which is unmistakably exciting and captivating.