Boy Swallows Universe
By Trent Dalton
Harper. 464 pp. $26.99
Reviewed by Ellen Morton
Set in Australia, Boy Swallows Universe is a sprawling novel about a thoughtful boy’s premature journey into manhood. At age 12, Eli Bell has grasped the last idyllic strands of innocence. He is catapulted reluctantly out of his youth after he discovers the depth of his mom and stepdad’s involvement with local drug traffickers. The only option for Eli and his brother, August, is to move in with their estranged father, an alcoholic whose mind “operates with as much order and predictability as the insides of our lounge room vinyl beanbag.”
As a narrator, Eli is a casual philosopher who takes in the glory and consequence of the smallest quotidian details, and his acute observations are often refracted through his singular lens of farce and surrealism. When witnessing a neighborhood bully stab a local priest’s car with a samurai sword, for example, he sees “an old warrior about to ritually end the life of his best friend, or his favourite Australian suburban getabout motorcar.”
Any preteen might get up to such preposterous mischief, but Eli’s high jinks have much higher stakes and potentially catastrophic consequences. His first brush with the heroin trade sets him on an inescapable path, a nightmare that follows him to the edge of adulthood. As he turns 18, he dreams of becoming a journalist, he falls in love, he struggles to understand what it is to be a good man, and still the monsters of Eli’s childhood haunt him.
Eli keeps his sense of humor, but the years of his adolescence pass, and he gets battered by life and circumstance; inevitably, some of his fanciful whimsy gives way to anger and a bleak pragmatism. His loss of innocence comes in narrative sucker punches, plot turns that evoke stomach-clenching terror and sickening grief. What makes these experiences so affecting is they happen to Eli and August, two immensely and immediately lovable characters. Almost from the first page, Eli’s lolloping descriptions reveal each brother’s stark individuality, but also a compelling fraternal devotion and understanding. They remain each other’s only constants throughout a young adulthood littered with traumas large and small.
Boy Swallows Universe hypnotizes you with wonder and then hammers you with heartbreak. The events of Eli’s life are often fatal and tragic, but fate and tragedy do not overpower the story. Eli’s remarkably poetic voice and his astonishingly open heart take the day. They enable him to carve out the best of what’s possible from the worst of what is, which is the miracle that makes this novel marvelous.