Books are my honey lemon, as they are to many who seek solace in a book. For doctors and others who work insane hours, leisure reading, especially a book like Boy Swallows Universe, is a luxury. When I left my job last June, I realised that when I didn’t feel totally exhausted and numb, I now had a new life where I would have time to read. Having spent 12-15 hours of each day dedicated to public hospital slavery, picking up a book would be the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to make up my sleep debt, even for an extra 9-minute snooze.
I realised that there were so many classic novels I’d never read. I almost felt this urgency in me to inhale as many of these lauded words as possible to make up for all the lost time. What works of genius had I missed out on that could have changed my life until that point? After resignation, I gradually started to build my #TBR pile with both classic novels and new releases. A book that kept coming up on recommendation lists was Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. It deservedly cleaned up at the Australian Book Industry Awards this year, and is going to be adapted for television.
In April, I decided I would go on a bookshop binge and bought a dozen books. I wanted to just crawl into a cave and consume them all. Reading isn’t easy if you’re recovering from burnout or depression. I’ve been struggling with concentration, which Boy Swallows Universe demands. I’ve been carrying it around in my backpack for a month or so now. Sometimes it sat in my bag for days without getting lifted out, whilst objects around it kept getting placed and replaced. The corners of the cover were starting to curl, and the moisture from the water bottle that goes with me everywhere were starting to form waves in the pages.
The first half of the book was a slow read for me. It’s not unusual for me to take a while to get into a book, but I automatically had a soft spot for the protagonist Eli Bell’s older brother August, who chooses to be mute. He’s cheeky and smart and is such a backbone to this story. Eli Bell is based around Trent Dalton himself, who has described the book as half fiction, half memoir. Only a book based on truth could so exquisitely describe everything in such fine detail. Dalton’s descriptions are an arabesque of words that I got lost in. In fact, the book itself to me is paced like Claude Debussy’s Deux arabesques – the first half being an unhurried andantino, and the second half a faster allegretto with a satisfying ending.
Early in the book we meet the villain, Brisbane drug-dealer Tytus Broz, whose favourite book is Moby Dick. In that moment I glanced up at my bookshelf, which houses my father’s 1952 edition of Moby Dick that he left behind for me. It made me wonder why this book was his favourite. It also brought back memories of me as a nine year old watching the film version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, with Mara Wilson reading out the famous opening line; “Call me Ishmael.” Indeed, Dalton references many classics in his novel, including Papillon, which was one of the inspirations for his book.
The characters in the book are just phenomenal. You can’t help but love the Bell brothers’ babysitter, ‘Slim’, who is a famous criminal. That’s the thing about this book. Despite being based around Brisbane’s drug-dealing crime scene, the theme of love and compassion is always there. The book also has plenty of comic relief, and I found myself laughing out loud at times. Dalton’s imitation of Eli’s Vietnamese neighbours is just too good. As someone with Vietnamese friends, I can just hear the accent shouting from the pages, and I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself.
When I allowed myself to say ‘no’ to a few things and give myself some ‘me time’ to do things I love, like read, the book just picked up the pace with me. Yesterday, I dedicated the whole afternoon and evening to finish the second half of the book. Before then, I’d just been reading short segments at a time on my train commutes. This time I told myself I would just sit and read, not do it as an ‘in between’ activity. Even though I was tired, I didn’t want to sleep. I just wanted to finish the book, have my questions answered, and allow myself to absorb every single word that Dalton has painstakingly written from what is evidently years of research and creation. I finished it around midnight, way past my bedtime, and I drifted off to sleep with the magnificent story fresh in my mind.
I am so happy for Trent Dalton that his book has been received with such high acclaim. To share something so deep, personal, and painful with the world in a work of literary magic takes so much courage, which I admire whole-heartedly. I can’t wait to watch the TV adaptation. I just hope it does the book justice. For anyone who hasn’t read this best-seller yet, the first half is a bit of a hard read, but if you persist into the second half it goes quickly and lifts you up like a leaf in a strong gust of wind.