In Trent Dalton’s gritty coming-of-age debut, Boy Swallows Universe, we enter the mind of Eli Bell, an eagle-eyed 12-year-old who gets thrust into a whirlwind of drugs, addiction, violence, racism, and classism.
Eli’s brother, August, speaks only when absolutely necessary. For the most part, he writes cryptically in the air. Eli’s spiritual mentor is the infamous Slim Halliday, a hardened criminal and master escapologist of Boggo Road.
His mother, Frances, is a recovering drug addict and victim of abuse. She left her husband Robert when, one night, he drove the family straight into a dam. She now lives with Lyle, a drug-dealer who is striving to provide a better life for his adopted family. A closet in their house leads to a hidden room with a red telephone, whose nature may or may not be magical.
The chaos begins when Lyle crosses Tytus Broz, a drug lord who creates prosthetic limbs as a day job. Upon learning that Lyle has been running a side-hustle without his permission, Tytus kidnaps Lyle, throws Frances to prison, and cuts off Eli’s lucky finger. Luckily, Lyle manages to tell August – by way of air-writing – the location of the drugs.
Now the two brothers are left to deal with their difficult situation, including having to live with their deadbeat biological father. Through the course of the novel, we tag along with Eli as he breaks into prison to see his mother, meets the love of his life, and many more misadventures.
The first thing that any reader will notice is that Dalton is a master of crafting characters that you will never forget. Their names are unique and they bear hints of their personalities. There’s Slim Halliday, the Houdini of Boggo Road; Caitlyn Spies, the journalist who’s always in search of a compelling story; Tytus Broz, the bone-chilling crime boss; Iwan Kroll, the creepy hitman. The list is almost endless. The dialogue is also varied and tailor-made for each person that Eli Bell meets. Even characters with duller names – like Christopher, the boy with the tumour – are memorable in the brief scenes that they have.
As for our protagonist and narrator, the author’s voice and knack for providing detailed descriptions are consistent throughout the novel. He never goes for just surface details. Instead, he uses emotions and memories on top of our five senses to render the scenery crystal clear. He describes the suburb of Darra as “a dream, a stench, a spilt garbage bin, a cracked mirror, a paradise, a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup filled with prawns, domes of plastic crab meat, pig ears and pig knuckles and pig belly.” For Eli Bell, mere visual descriptions are simply not enough.
The novel is written in present tense to reflect the urgency of the events, but it’s also interwoven with flashes of the past. This doesn’t slow down the storytelling, though. In fact, it makes the scenes that involve fast-paced action all the more thrilling. A stand-out scene that demonstrates this is the part where Eli escapes from the hospital that he gets admitted to after Iwan Kroll cuts off his lucky finger. His plans for his escape are informed by that of Slim’s, and the result on paper is a suspenseful back-and-forth between past and present. In the hands of a lesser writer, the entire scene would have felt clunky. Luckily, Dalton knows how to write a scene like this seamlessly.
Dalton definitely takes his time to tell the story of Eli Bell. As mentioned, Eli never lets the details slip. Each scene is painted so that we can see it like it’s being played out right in front of us. Blocks of paragraphs are dedicated to describing every location to absorb the reader into the world of the characters. There are Ezra’s black Betamax tapes, the makeshift stage at Boggo Road Women’s Prison, the mountain of paperbacks in Robert Bell’s library. Admittedly, there are some portions that are overindulgent. While reading them, I was tempted to just race through them and get it over with. But that’s just who Eli is, and to take away these obsessive sentences would betray his character. This isn’t an objective flaw, but it is certainly one that will make or break a reader’s experience.
Dalton is known for his lyrical prose and it’s displayed throughout the novel. However, a healthy dose of grittiness balances it out, preventing the writing from being empty and flowery. The narration is also erratic to reflect the chaos of Eli’s life. The reader gets thrown around a lot from scene to scene, setting to setting, making for a slightly dizzying read. However, it’s never to the point that it’s unreadable. It’s also not a style that’s totally alienating. Anyone who has ever read Dennis Johnson or most of the Beat Generation writers will feel right at home between Dalton’s lines. This is another aspect of the novel that you will either hate or love.
Boy Swallows Universe is certainly not a beach read. If you’re looking for a straight forward slice-of-life bildungsroman, it’s best that you put this novel back on the shelf. But, if you want to see how harsh life can be for a thirteen-year-old boy living through the horrors of crime and addiction in the wastelands of Darra, this book is for you.