Monday, April 22, 2019

Book Review: "Boy Swallows Universe" by Trent Dalton

Eli is growing up in a small Australian suburb in the 1980s. His mother is a junkie and in jail, his father is nowhere to be found, his stepfather is a drug dealer, and his older brother, August, is a mute genius. The only adult in his life is Slim, a former prisoner who holds the record for the most escapes.

"I truly love Slim because he truly loves August and me. Slim was hard and cold in his youth. He's softened with age. Slim always cares for August and me and how we're going and how we're going to grow up. I love him so much for trying to convince us that when Mum and Lyle are out for so long like this they are at the movies and not, in fact, dealing heroin purchased from Vietnamese restaurateurs."

For a 12-year-old, Eli has the mind and heart of an adult. Even though his life is completely chaotic, he craves normalcy—as much as he can get given the situation he's in. He wants to be a journalist, he wants to fall in love, and he wants to be a good man, better than those he's had in his life.

Life keeps getting in Eli's way. It's up to him to care for his brother and to battle a truly dangerous drug dealer, and then work to save his mum. Through it all, Eli sees that there are two paths to follow—the right and the wrong—and although the wrong may be the easier one to follow, he knows he'll never recover if he takes that path.

What's fascinating and eye-opening about Boy Swallows Universe is that Trent Dalton based it on his own childhood and his relationship with his mother. Even though I know people find themselves in really dangerous, sad situations, it's still a bit of a gut punch to realize how closely this crazy story mirrors real life. I didn't know that going into reading this book, so it gave it a dash of added poignancy upon reflection.

I found the characters and their relationships really endearing, but the narrative style of this book put me off. Part of it was the Australian dialect the characters used, and part was the truncated way some of the dialogue flowed. There were times I had to re-read some paragraphs just to be sure I knew what was happening, so that kept me feeling not quite connected.

There is a tremendous amount of heart and charm in Boy Swallows Universe, and some very memorable characters. I know that many people enjoyed this book more than I did, so if it sounds intriguing, definitely give it a shot. It's a thought-provoking, heart-warming, and disturbing story.

NetGalley and HarperCollins provided me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

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