Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Trent Dalton's Boy swallows universe

Our first book for 2019, Trent Dalton's debut autobiographical novel Boy swallows universe, was recommended by a past member and proved to be a very popular choice, with everyone liking it and some loving it. It's set in Brisbane over about 7 years, starting in the mid 1980s, and is told first person by adolescent Eli Bell, whose babysitter is an ex-con and whose stepfather is a heroin dealer. 

As always, we started with ...

First impressions

  • Most, though not all, found the book hard to get into at first, fearing it was "yet another" gritty, social realist novel about a dysfunctional Australian family, a "life-is-a-drudge" novel.
  • Some loved it from the start, one saying she "devoured" it.
  • All, however, liked the novel, some suggesting it was the best Australian novel they'd read, a topic we discussed further later (so see below!)
  • What we liked included: lovely descriptive writing with a satisfying suspense thriller ending; a page-turner; great phrases; the "efficient" writing style; the positive "glass half-full", brave, loyal character of the protagonist; the humour; the larger than life often over-the-top characters who were nonetheless believable; the come-uppance ending for the bad guys; the love.
  • Some found it a page-turner while others (who nonetheless liked it) found it so intense at times that they had to have a break.
  • One felt she liked it more after discovering it was autobiographical.
  • One listened on audio and, while she liked the book very much, felt that the audio didn't do it justice
  • One was a little sceptical about the level of love Eli Bell had for his parents who were clearly flawed, while another liked that "he was very sweet about his family".
  • One summarised it as having "lots of humour, tension, tears and wisdom".
  • A Queenslander wondered whether the book would work as well for those who don't know the setting, but no-one felt this was an issue any more than for other books set in unfamiliar territory - though we agreed that familiarity can add something to our reading.

It's fascinating - once again - to see the variety of our opinions even when we all like a book!

Themes and style

We saw many themes and subjects in the novel, including the definition of "a good man" - the question the protagonist Eli Bell asks regularly throughout the novel. We wondered whether there was a final definition, and felt that the following from late in the novel is probably the closest we got:

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy ... Do what is human.
Other themes and subjects we discussed included that it provides "an insight into the lives of battlers, and that it shows that life isn’t always what it seems. It is also about childhood trauma and coping with that". And there's quite a bit of discussion about managing time - with word plays on the notion of "doing time".

What made all these themes work was the writing. We thought Eli and his family were excellent characters. Eli is a great observer, and a great questioner; he's brave and ready to defend his mother. We liked that the authorial voice was a kind one that looked for the best in people.

We liked how carefully the book was constructed, how things mentioned in one place are picked up in another. Late in the book, the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words - and we realised that all the chapter headings (before and after) were, in fact, three words, eg "Boy writes words", "Boy steals ocean", "Boy masters time", and so on.

We loved the descriptive writing, such as this of Sister Patricia meeting Eli and his brother August for the first time:

She looks deep into our eyes. 'I've heard all about you two,' she says. She nods at me. 'Eli, the talker and the storyteller.' She nods at August. 'And August, our dear wise and quiet man. Ohhhh, what rare fire and ice we have here, hey."

Or this, from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There's two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they'll form tonight's signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they're missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They're so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

We did have a few questions. At least one didn't much like the magical bits, though others saw these as Dalton's way of reflecting and perhaps deflecting, of resolving, the childhood trauma aspects of the novel. A couple weren't convinced that the final clock-tower scene was needed, while others loved this bit of page-turning excitement and resolution. 


We liked its "Australianness" - from Australian details like references to iced vovos to the very Australian way the characters live and talk.

We also talked - perhaps more than usual - about how it relates to other Australian novels and also where it might fit in terms of "the great" or "best" Australian novel.

Relationship with other Australian novels

Some feared it was going to be gritty and dysfunctional like Sofie Laguna's The choke (which in fact was our top pick last year!), but one suggested a closer comparison could be Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones.

One talked about Andrew McGahan's Last drinks which deals with police corruption in Queensland. She hoped this book might go there, but we discussed that this book is a first person narrative by a teenage boy so had a different goal.

One said it reminded her of two books - Steve Toltz's A fraction of the whole, a rather over-the-top father-son story, and Tim Winton's Breath, which explores what it means to be a good man.

And, not Australian, but worth mentioning ... One member suggested that it could be Australia's answer on the world stage to Stieg Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo. And one or two said it reminded them a little of Frank McCourt's Angela's ashes

Best Australian novel

The suggestion by one that this was the best Australian novel she'd ever read resulted in a discussion about "the best" Australian novel. We didn't come to any conclusions - not surprisingly given the subjectivity involved. Consequently, for almost every suggestion there was a counter-suggestion, if not an all out "oh no, not that one" - but we gave it our best shot: 
  • Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda
  • Norman Lindsay's The magic pudding
  • Andrew McGahan's White earth
  • Alex Miller's Coal Creek
  • Henry Handel Richardson's The fortunes of Richard Mahony
  • Christos Tsiolkas' The slap OR Barracuda
  • Patrick White's The eye of the storm OR Voss
  • Tim Winton's Cloudstreet

Other writers suggested included Miles Franklin and Christina Stead.

Present: 9 people