The Bossy Bookworm
Review of Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton
The emotions and drives of the story feel real, but the tone is darkly playful. I loved spending time with main protagonist Eli as he navigated tough situations and emerged with hope.
There's a secret panel in the back of the wardrobe at Eli's house. Behind the panel is a tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel is a room. In the room is a red telephone, and the male voice on the line gives Eli advice. Who is the man? Can he be trusted? Is any of this even real?
Eli Bell is a young man in a tough spot. His father's out of the picture, his mother's in jail, his stepfather is gone, and his best friend and most solid source of advice is a convicted felon and legendary prison escapee, Slim. Eli's beloved older brother August is brilliant, but he never speaks. Things are complicated.
Eli lives in a bleak, distant suburb of Brisbane, Australia. He wants to grow up and become a journalist, but for now his main goal is trying not to attract too much attention or bring any trouble down on himself or his brother.
Tytus Broz, a powerful drug dealer (an association with whom left Eli's family in shambles), is successfully posing as an inspiring philanthropist. On the surface, he's an inventor who gives back to the community. In reality, he employs the foulest, most cruel minion to help him destroy anyone threatening his bad business, his profits, or his control. The injustice of this leaves Eli in a murderous rage.
Eli is a good young fellow who is growing more savvy, is increasingly able to see shades of gray, and who is singularly focused on the long game in order to save his family, preserve his dreams, and achieve justice. If he can just manage his mother's tendency to fall in with the wrong man; get the reporter Caitlyn Spies to realize that he exists; figure out what his vivid, recurring dreams and his brother August's premonitions might mean; and determine whose voice is on the other end of that damn red phone, things just might turn out all right. He can't face any other possibility.
In many ways, Boy Swallows Universe defies categorization. Its circumstances are often grim and should feel hopeless, the story's destruction and violence often feels unending, and Eli's luck continues to plunge. Yet Eli is an optimistic, practical adolescent boy who is bent on making his way, finding the courage to talk to the girl of his dreams, and sorting through the elements of magical realism Dalton places in his path.
The emotions and drives of the story feel real, but the tone is darkly playful. Some of Eli's grand plans (going to see his mom) were fully implausible, with questionable, fleeting benefits that felt sure to end badly, and some other plot points were similarly unlikely, but I was happily willing to suspend my disbelief.
Trent's debut novel sifts through everyday brutality, corruption, and the general neglect of people and possessions and reveals imperfect goodness and hope. Boy Swallows Universe has many larger-than-life characters, especially its villains. Despite the desperate behaviors of the adults in Eli's life (and the terrible consequences he suffers because of them), he emerges as a fantastic, oddball, singularly heroic character I loved spending time with.
Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?
Dalton is also the author of All Our Shimmering Skies and By Sea & Stars: The Story of the First Fleet, a nonfiction book about the founding of Australia.
I mentioned Boy Swallows Universe (along with A Burning and The Office of Historical Corrections) in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 2/9/21 Edition.