Boy Swallows Universe is the buzz in Australian books right now. It’s going to sell itself, as all of the pull quotes and window displays tell us. First it’s about one thing, then it’s about another, then you turn the page and years have passed, but one thing is certain: Boy Swallows Universe is an Australian novel that is at least in part about children who have to fend for themselves in the face of their parental figures’ involvement in drugs. We certainly haven’t published one of those before. Cynical though that sounds, Boy Swallows Universe isn’t bad, it just isn’t up to much and is up to too much all at once.
Boy Swallows Universe is impossible to blurb, but HarperCollins has tried. Eli Bell lives in the suburban Brisbane of the eighties with his mute brother August, his recovering drug addict mother, and her heroin dealer boyfriend Lyle. Periodically Eli is babysat by the real life prison escape artist Arthur “Slim” Halliday, and from him he learns about moral ambiguity.
Boy Swallows Universe isn’t about anything in particular; the moment you think it has a through line, debut author (long time columnist for The Australian) Trent Dalton throws one time jump at you, and then another. Sagas, epics, and coming of age stories can cover a span of years, but Boy Swallows Universe doesn’t use them well. At times it feels like Dalton is ageing up his lead so that he can justify reciprocal interest from Caitlyn Spies, a journalist a good eight years older than his humble protagonist. Rather than having an elasticity in its length, Boy Swallows Universe sags.
Dalton opens with mysticism, and has an inconsistent approach to maintaining it. Gritty realism combines with soothsaying and takes a detour into a ridiculous portrait of the nativity at a women’s prison, and no single tone is ever struck. If it weren’t for its sudden paucity of events, Boy Swallows Universe would be exhausting. The drugs and the family drama provide a veneer of profundity that Dalton can’t quite cash in, but they’ll win over a lot of readers regardless.
Boy Swallows Universe is messy, but there’s just enough suburban ennui mixed with improbable adventure to capture what Australian readers seem to want want outside of their straight up crime novels or quirky romantic comedies. There’s definitely an audience for Boy Swallows Universe, but it is perhaps not quite so deserving of the huge publisher push it has received. It’s no See What I Have Done.