“A bee sting smarts like a bitch until someone clubs you with a cricket bat.” Trent Dalton ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

Boy Swallows Universe is the debut novel from Australian author, Trent Dalton. Set in Brisbane’s violent working class suburban fringe in the 1980’s, the story tells the tale of Eli Bell, a child finding his way in an often chaotic world. Throughout, it explores ideas of family, friendship and fate in a fantastical world.

Whether it be the references to sport (“catching us mud crabs with claws that bulge like Viv Richards’ biceps”), music (“He played a cassette tape of Van Halen’s 1984 all the way home”) or television (“‘Which planet has the most moons?’ asks Tony Barber inside our fuzzy television, posing questions to three contestants on the pastel pink and aquamarine set of Sale of the Century.”), this somewhat strange story has a way of feeling normal. However, it is far from normal. This is something Dalton touches on near the end of the novel.

She looks out from the foyer to Mum, Dad and August, now waiting at the edge of King George Square.
‘I thought they’d look different, your mum and dad,’ she says.
I laugh. ‘You did?’
‘They’re so nice,’ she says. ‘They just look like any normal mum and dad.’
‘They’ve been working on normal for quite some time now.’

Source: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Whether it be children taken on drug runs, a father coping with alcoholism after nearly drowning his children, a mute child struggling with trauma, a child breaking into prison to see his mother, a child being pen pals with the head of a motorcycle gang or catching out criminals living double lives on a hunch, this book often feels more akin to ‘cartoon descriptions of a cartoon world‘.

Although Boy Swallows Universe explores a world of drugs and crime, this never feels like a brutal drama such as Animal Kingdom or Underbelly, although it has all the same ingredients. One reason for this is the perceived innocence of the adolescent narrator, something that reminded me of Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger. The strangest thing is that many of these other worldly oddities were a part of Trent Daltons life.

It was interesting to read Boy Swallows Universe alongside Andrew Stafford’s book on Brisbane, music and its politics in Pig City. Seen from a child’s perspective, politics is often off the page in Dalton’s world, while also ever present through fraud and donations.

Also, I listened to Stig Wemyss’ reading of the novel. After a few chapters, I managed to stop hearing Wemyss’ reading of Andy Griffith and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series.


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