Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

I started writing this post in April. Here’s what I wrote:

Hooray! My first five-star read for 2019.

That’s as far as I got. Darn it’s difficult to review books that I love, love, love.

So, instead of a review, I’ve listed the elements of this magnificent story that have stayed with me.

01. Eli lives in what many would consider a dysfunctional family. And yet, there is so much love in that family. I’m still not quite sure how Dalton managed to pull that off given the drugs, knives, crime and general sense of fear that dominates the story but it is clear that Eli and his brother know what it is to be loved.

…hugging Dad back feels like the good thing to do and my hope is to grow into a good man, so I do it.

02. This is a story about men and boys, and being a role model –

…every problem in the world, every crime ever committed can be traced back to someone’s dad – robbery, rape, terrorism, Cane putting a job on Abel, Jack the Ripper. It all goes back to dads. Mums maybe too, I guess, but there ain’t no shit mum in this world that wasn’t first the daughter of a shit dad.

03. There are elements of this story that are autobiographical. And it’s astounding (because Dalton’s mum did go to jail, his ‘dad’ was a drug dealer, and his babysitter was a convicted murderer who broke out of jail).

I look into Darren’s eyes. He’s done this before. I’ve never done this. Five hours ago I was drawing my stick figure portrait as a knight, holding Excalibur, in the heat mist on the shower door. Now I’m making a heroin deal with the 16-year-old leader of the 5T gang.

04. It’s really funny (see Tang quote below). And it’s also heartbreaking.

05. Excellent sense of place and time (Brisbane in the eighties). Eli, on Steven Keaton –

The dads in those tv shows spend a great deal of time talking to their kids in their living rooms. Steven Keaton – the dad of my dreams – seems to do nothing but sit on his couch or at his kitchen table talking to his children about their myriad teenage calamities. He listens and listens to his kids and he pours glasses of orange juice and hands them to his kids as he listens some more. He tells his kids he loves them by telling his kids he loves them. Dad tells me he loves me when he forms a pistol out of this forefinger and thumb and points it at me as he farts. He tells us he loves us by showing us the tattoo we never knew he had on the inside of his bottom lip: Fuck you. 

06. The suspense – a thrilling, breathless end that was as exciting and as dazzling as the rest of the book.

07. And the lasting message – sometimes good people do bad things and vice versa – the question is, which bits define us?

5/5 A joy.

Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a boy standing in the doorway of my hospital room. He wears a light blue hospital gown like me. He has a shaved head but for a long brown rat’s tail stretching from the back of his scalp and draping over his right shoulder. His left hand grips a mobile IV-stand holding the drip bag that’s plugged into his hand.
‘What is it, Christopher?’ asks Dr Brennan.
Maybe he’s eleven years old. He’s got a scar across his top lip that makes him look like the last eleven-year-old boy with a mobile drip I’d ever want to come across in a dark alley. He scratches his arse.
‘Tang’s too weak again,’ he spits.
Dr Brennan sighs, ‘Christopher, there’s twice as much powder in it than last time,’ she says.
He shakes his head and walks away. ‘I’m fuckin’ dyin’ and yer givin’ me weak Tang?’ he says on his way up the corridor outside.

I seriously love Tang. Seriously. These Tang cocktails seem like a waste of precious Tang, and yet…

23 responses

    • Thanks, I’ll check it out. I noticed on Goodreads that the Grey is compared to two books sitting in my TBR stack (My Name is Leon and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep) – so many books, so little time…

  1. Ha! I am just reading you quote no. 2.and thinking about how very different John Marsden’s new parenting book is – my current read- (he blames every fucked person on their mother …) … needless to say I like this more.

    • I included that quote for that very reason – because usually it’s always about the mother! In counselling, whilst it is often about the mother, it is more accurate to say people’s problems stem from their early attachment relationships, and most often the main attachment relationship in Western cultures is the mother. Although I am very much into attachment theory (and the counselling model I mostly use is all about attachment), it doesn’t capture the significance of exposure to violence (specifically domestic violence and sexual abuse), and this is most often a male domain. The quote nails that. There is no question that so much of a person’s mental health and their relationship problems stem from being exposed to violence (a good recent example is Corey White’s memoir, The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory, which has lots of interesting perspectives on attachment relationships and domestic violence).

      I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on the Marsden – I have avoided it because I thought it might be a middle-aged white bloke mansplaining…

      • I don’t really set myself a word limit as such, but I like to have a rule of thumb to work to. If the posts start to get long, like over 1000/1100 words I start thinking about what I want to achieve. Sometimes the extra length is because I’m included longest quotes, and sometimes because I’ve written a longish intro.

        I understand A Life in Books, wanting to read shortish posts.

  2. Oh I could never do a book in 500 words is way too short, though I wish I could. I started by setting myself 800 words, and then 1000. My average post length over the years has been 950-1050. My Dalton post was more than that!

    I enjoyed your post Kate … brought it all back.

  3. This sounds great. It’s incredible to find humour in such grim circumstances but from the quotes it seems perfectly judged.

    I’ve just had to google what Tang is – I don’t think its a thing here, or if it was it totally passed me by…

    • Unlikely that Tang is a thing anywhere except the Middle East these days! (When we went to Dubai, I stocked up – there’s a Tang section in duty free at Dubai airport). When we were little, we had it as a treat (Tang or Robinson’s Lemon Barley). It’s basically powdered cordial.

  4. I know this is a book I should read. Whether I will, that’s another thing altogether, I don’t seem to be doing contemporary fiction too well at the moment (and I had to google Tang too – I grew up with real oranges, not that my kids seems to eat them). Word count wise, I try and keep my reviews in the 800-1000 range, 500 seems too short and my longest was spread out over two posts of 1400 words each.

    • Seems we feel the same about word counts Bill. My event reports are usually longer, and some Monday Musings, but most actual reviews now average 1000/1100 mark, which means there are longer and shorter ones! Longer ones (like the recent Scott) will have more quotes.

    • I think the audio version of this book is very well done, so perhaps ‘read’ it that way? The book did take a little bit of getting into and there’s also some magic realism which is not normally my thing at all, but Dalton makes it work and overall, the book is just so enjoyable.

      Tang is no longer available in Australian supermarkets… I have to get my supply at the Middle Eastern supermarkets in Brunswick. We had it when I was little not as an orange juice substitute (we drank Patra brand juice that had so much pulp in it you practically needed a spoon!) but instead of cordial. These days, I don’t drink orange juice but I do eat oranges (I have one nearly every night, cut in a very specific way – my little routine makes me feel old!).

      I have no idea how long my posts are, although fairly sure my shortest review was around five words. 😀

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