Book Review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe…

About the Book:

Brisbane, 1983: A lost father, a mute brother, a mum in jail, a heroin dealer for a stepfather and a notorious crim for a babysitter. It’s not as if Eli’s life isn’t complicated enough already. He’s just trying to follow his heart, learning what it takes to be a good man, but life just keeps throwing obstacles in the way – not least of which is Tytus Broz, legendary Brisbane drug dealer.

But Eli’s life is about to get a whole lot more serious. He’s about to fall in love. And, oh yeah, he has to break into Boggo Road Gaol on Christmas Day, to save his mum.

A story of brotherhood, true love and the most unlikely of friendships, Boy Swallows Universe will be the most heartbreaking, joyous and exhilarating novel you will read all year.

My Thoughts:

‘Don’t you ever be ashamed of crying. You cry because you give a shit. Don’t ever be ashamed of giving a shit. Too many people in this world are too scared to cry because they’re too scared to give a shit.’

I wasn’t going to read this book on account of all the hype. But then I thought I’d better read it after all, because of, well, you know, all the hype. I’ve been burned by hyped up books in the past, the type of burns you never recover from – eg. Girl on the Train; I’m still scarred. I was most definitely not burned by this one though. Boy Swallows Universe more than lives up to all of its hype. It surpasses it and then some. It’s wholly unique, filled with so much about so many things. Could I be more vague? I’ll try my best to tell you why I loved this book so much without giving anything away because the less you know going in, the better.

‘It’s the faith he has in me. I liked it more when nobody believed in me. It was easier that way. Having nothing expected of you. Having no bar set to reach or fail to reach.’

Is it a true story? Bits and pieces, no doubt. Many who have heard Trent Dalton speak since its publication have heard a lot about what’s true and what’s not. I haven’t heard anything; I live in the back of beyond where no one comes to speak about anything and then of course I wasn’t planning on reading it, so I deliberately didn’t read any articles either. Until last week when I read this really beautiful piece on the Booktopia blog written by Trent himself called, ‘Why I Wrote Boy Swallows Universe.’ After reading this article, I immediately unearthed my copy from my mountainous tbr, which instantly gives me away, because despite deciding not to read it, I had a copy on hand – because sometimes I like to challenge myself and buy a book I’m not intending to read just to see how long I can hold out. But this article was so moving, it reached me, and I knew I needed to read the book. Cut through the hype and judge for myself. Lucky I had that copy! (I held out for about eight months, by the way). It’s important to not get too caught up in what’s true in the book and what’s not. It’s a work of fiction, inspired largely by the author’s early life, but it’s not an autobiography. This separation of the author from the work enabled me to fully appreciate what Trent has done. I’ve read a few reviews that seemed to have trouble with this separation, even going so far as to call it Trent’s life story; autobiographical fiction (no such thing exists) that was too far-fetched to be believed. This is a work of fiction. That it’s heavily inspired by Trent’s early life certainly enhances it, but it doesn’t define it.

‘And I know immediately I am standing inside a moment of trauma. The trauma is in me and the trauma that will happen has already happened.’

Anyone who grew up rough will find the familiar within these pages. For those who didn’t, the book may or may not work for you, it probably all depends on how you approach it and what your tolerance levels for the nastier side of life are. For me, reading Boy Swallows Universe was a deeply personal journey back into my own early life; the good, and the not so good. I related to the story, as well as to Eli and Gus, on so many levels. The story was in turn blisteringly funny and achingly sad. It’s ultimately an adventure, a crime story, a family drama, solid gold Aussie, and in essence, it really reminded me of the Australian film, Two Hands, with its coming of age/standing at a crossroads vibe. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s, that tragic yet golden heyday, will be immersed in the nostalgic atmosphere. While I wouldn’t touch one now with a barge pole, back in the day, a devon and sauce sandwich always hit the spot. And those KT26’s; oh my goodness, we were all wearing them while walking around in the blazing sun without hats on sucking on Sunny Boys. And 80s TV shows. All those great shows Eli and Gus were growing up to. Kids today are learning their values from American MA15+ rated video games instead of cheesy, yet wholesome, American PG rated family sitcoms. The tragedy is very real. The 1980s just springs to life in this book. It’s a brilliant trip down memory lane; but it was also a difficult one. Because there are other parts of the 1980s that weren’t so great: domestic violence was nobody’s business, you probably asked for it; child protection was of little importance; welfare was rife in certain parts of Australia and for some, the dole was a career goal; QLD didn’t even sell mid-strength beer until later in the decade, exacerbating the violence that stemmed from pay day binge drinking; having a mental illness meant you were crazy and thus judged and ostracised accordingly; weapons were frequently brought to school and used in the playground; smoking was cool, those who didn’t do it were not; the police were not to be trusted, at least, not by the people in my neighbourhood. Nostalgia can work both ways, and it does so very well in this book.

‘You think you’re serving your profession so nobly, so compassionately,’ Dad says. ‘You’ll take those boys from me and you’ll split ‘em up and you’ll strip ‘em bare of the only thing that keeps ‘em going, each other, and you’ll tell your friends over a bottle of chardonnay from Margaret River how you saved two boys from their monster dad who nearly killed them once and they’ll bounce from foster home to foster home until they find each other again at the gate of your house with a can of petrol and they’ll thank you for sticking your nose into our business as they’re burning your house down.’

Ultimately, I took away a lot from reading Boy Swallows Universe, but there are a few things, take home messages I suppose, for want of a different way of putting it, that I particularly appreciated:

1. At some point, everyone is faced with a choice: go this way, the same as everyone around me, or go that way, forge a new path. The cycle can be broken. You can go your own way. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

2. Love is messy, particularly when it comes to family. You can hate what someone does, but still love them fiercely. You can be deeply ashamed of your family, but still love them wholly.

3. There are shades of grey in all of us. Good people can do bad things. Bad people can do good things. Sometimes it’s not about the labels, but more about the moment of action.

4. People make mistakes. People can be bad parents but still love their kids.

5. Forgiveness can be as much for yourself as for the person you are forgiving.

‘She sits on a single bed and I remember how she sat on that bed in Boggo Road. And those two women could not be more different. The worst of her in my head and the best of her here. And this is the her that will be.’

Boy Swallows Universe is brilliant. The way it’s written; there’s nothing else like it. Total immersion. I’ll leave you now with a few more of my favourite bits.

‘Lyle was born in the camp in 1949, spent his first night on earth sleeping in a large iron wash bucket, wrapped in a grey blanket like the one right here on this bed. America wouldn’t take Lyle and Great Britain wouldn’t take Lyle, but Australia would and Lyle never forgot this fact, which is why, during a wildly misspent youth, he never burned or vandalised property marked Made in Australia.’


‘Every now and then some unfortunate kid in August’s class makes fun of August and his refusal to speak. His reaction is always the same: he walks up to that month’s particularly foul-mouthed bully who is dangerously unaware of August’s hidden streak of psychopathic rage and, blessed by his inability to explain his actions, he simply attacks the boy’s unblemished jaw, nose and ribs with one of three sixteen-punch boxing combinations my mum’s long-time boyfriend, Lyle, has tirelessly taught us both across endless winter weekends with an old brown leather punching bag in the backyard shed. Lyle doesn’t believe in much, but he believes in the circumstance-shifting power of a broken nose.’


‘I will remember devotion through this lump in my chest. I will remember love through a wedge of rockmelon. The lump is an engine inside me that makes me move. She walks off the train and my heart thumps into first, second, third, fourth gear.’


About the Author:

Trent Dalton is a staff writer for the Weekend Australian Magazine and a former assistant editor of The Courier Mail. He’s a two-time winner of a Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, a four-time winner of a Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW Journalism and a four-time winner of the national News Awards Features Journalist of the Year. His debut novel, Boy Swallows Universe, published by HarperCollins in 2018, is a much-loved national bestseller and critically acclaimed, winning the 2019 Indie Book of the Year Award, the MUD Literary Prize, the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and in addition, at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards, the book won a record four ABIA Awards including the prestigious Book of the Year Award. Boy Swallows Universe will be published across 34 English language and translation territories.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia (4th Estate – AU)

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

  1. Pingback: #BookBingo – Round 19 | Theresa Smith Writes

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