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“Boy Swallows Universe”: Housos, casual violence, and courage in Trent Dalton’s debut novel

Hand holding book, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton in front of a peace lily.

This was the first book I bought after arriving back in Australia in October 2019. It is hard to miss this book; it has won quite a few literary awards, is in all the book shops, K-Marts, and Targets around, and as one of my friends put it: ‘It is now on the list of Opshop Bingo’—books that appear in large quantities in second-hand stores like The Da Vinci Code and Twilight. That being said, books with this amount of fame usually come with polarising opinions. It is a love-hate relationship with this book and I am definitely in the love category.

Trent Dalton supposedly based this book on some of his own experiences growing up in Queensland in the 1980s and the level of honesty and rawness shows in his work. In fact, I have never read a book that spoke so closely to my own experiences growing up in a housing commission home. The plot line is clearly exaggerated and I didn’t have to battle a crazy drug smuggling bionic limb tycoon, but the casual violence, the closeness of drugs, and the dysfunctional home life described in the book spoke to not only a lot of my own experiences growing up, but also to the experiences of the people I knew around me.

For the first time in my reading life, I saw and read about an Australia I knew.

Tied up in the narrative of Dalton’s book is the hopes and dreams along with the resilience of those of us who have not only battled with housing commission life, but have managed to get ourselves out of it. It is a bittersweet success, because I know how much and how many people I have left behind. Eli Bell struggles through his life and becomes what he had always dreamed of being: working as a journalist. The novel is a classic coming of age story. It has some love, crime, and heart ache. It outlines a complex narrative of Australian masculinity that is both beautiful and terrifying. The brotherly love, support, and conflict is heartwarming and heartbreaking, and the discussions of domestic violence in the novel are done with such accuracy and care for the subject matter, that I found them jarring.

When I read Dalton’s novel, I couldn’t help but think of Tim Minchin’s talk on luck:

You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.

Tim Minchin – Occasional Address in 2013

What Australian novels are you reading at the moment? Have you read Dalton’s novel yet? Did you love or hate it? As always, share the reading love.

One thought on ““Boy Swallows Universe”: Housos, casual violence, and courage in Trent Dalton’s debut novel

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