Boy Swallows Universe

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 27 Jul 2018

Member Reviews

Good debut novel by an Aussie author. A unique coming-of-age crime story that is well written. A little meandering at times but an okay read overall.
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After hearing rave reviews I finally read it myself.  Set in QLD in the 90's it made me very nostalgic & I struggled to put it down. It's great to see another Aussie Author smashing it. A mixed bag of laughing out loud & must look away, would definitely recommend
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I found this novel really well written, albeit a bit heavy handed on the description of things, it just seemed to be neverending descriptiveness.  That being said, this book just didn't really appeal to me and i was largely uninterested, purely personal taste!  

Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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So many good things about this book!!!

* The totally perfect cover. Not only the gorgeous colours but also its appropriateness to the story.

* The writing. Trent Dalton is a master of beautiful prose.

* The characters. I loved Eli and Gus and their solid and completely understanding relationship.

* The story itself which was horrific and mystical by turns and always totally absorbing.

* The ending which although a little far fetched was also satisfying.

For me it was slightly spoilt by too much information about drug dealing and the unnecessary overuse of two words which do not need to appear so frequently in a well written book. So not quite the full five stars. A memorable book though!
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Boy Swallows Universe,  the debut novel for Walkley award winning journalist, Trent Dalton is the most dynamic book I have read in a long time. As you would expect, beautifully written, it covers issues of drug use and trafficking, domestic violence and brutality at an extreme level, but told through the eyes of teenaged Eli, the lens is refreshing, humorous at times and devastating at others.
Filled with fantastic characters like August, Eli’s older brother who doesn’t speak after a traumatic childhood event but ‘was everything back then. Mum, dad, uncle , grandma, priest, pastor, cook’, and kept doing it because he ‘seemed to know some secret about it all, that it was all just a phase’; their mum who just wants to be normal, suburban, help out at their school; Lyle, their mother’s boyfriend whose parents escaped death camps, and tries to be a dad to the boys despite his involvement in illicit drugs; Slim, ‘the Taxi Driver Killer’, who babysits the boys now he is out of prison, while their mother and Lyle are out dealing in heroin, but tells the boys they have gone to the movies; Alex Eli’s pen pal from prison and sergeant-at-arms of the Rebels outlaw motorcycle gang who told Eli of his childhood where he was ‘intimidated by boys in sewage tunnels and of the violence that ensued’; Tytus Broz, Lyle’s boss and Iwan Krol, the thug who does Boz’s bidding.
Eli’s narration of his life is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact – his mother and Lyle didn’t forget his ‘eighth birthday, as such, just sleeping through it, that kind of thing. Booby-trap syringes and shit. You’d creep into their bedroom to wake them up and tell them it was Easter, hop onto their bed like the joyful seasonal bunny and cop a junk needle in your kneecap. August made me pancakes’; ‘the fungus-green loaf of bread that had been sitting in the fridge for what August and I had tracked at forty-three days’; his mother’s ‘thirty-year slideshow of violence and abandonment and dormitory homes for wayward Sydney girls with bad dads’; that ‘the average street grunt suburban drug dealer is not too far removed from the common pizza delivery boy’; and ‘more cartons of mid-strength beer in Bracken Ridge mean less Bracken Ridge mums presenting before Dr Benson in the Barrett Street Medical Centre with split eye sockets’.
 I loved the way many of them were avid readers, even the most hardened criminals having huge libraries, challenging the stereotype about books and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, like Slim who ‘after years of good behaviour  … was given the role of prison librarian, which allowed him to share his love of literature and poetry with increasingly interested inmates’. Many of them encouraged Eli’s love of reading and writing. His father gave him block of A4 paper to ‘burn this house down or set the world on fire’.
Eli ‘never really considered heroin empire building as part of my life plan’, aspires to live in the leafy suburb of The Gap, wants to be a journalist and win the heart of Caitlyn Spies, a reporter for local papers.
Set in the 1980s the issues are still as relevant today as they were then, and will remain so, making it what I believe will become a modern classic. The time is exquisitely reflected in TV shows, politics and great descriptions that take you back – ‘Tang and green cordial high from afternoon tea, their tongues still buzzing with the sweet elixir of the cream inside a Monte Carlo biscuit’.
The writing, his choice of words, were just delightful – ‘It’s been raining and the sky is grey and a rainbow arches over Lancelot Street, promising everybody here a beginning and an end in seven perfect colours’; ‘eyes that look like the lilypad-fringed waters of the Enoggera’; ‘when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves’; ‘I breathe deep and smell it and I swear I can smell that ink because maybe they’re all on deadline and the presses are already running and I’m gonna be part of that place somehow, some day, I just know it’; and ‘Batman was just a bit player, maybe, but he acted well in the grand production of The Extraordinary and Unexpected Yet Totally Expected Life of Eli Bell’.
It challenges what makes a good and a bad person, that ‘trauma and the effects of trauma can change the way people think. Sometimes it can make us believe things that are not true. Sometimes it can alter the way we look at the world. Sometimes it can make us do things we normally would not do’, acknowledging that ‘a war of words and memories and moments, [can be] just as damaging to a growing boy’s brain, one could say, as anything on the Western Front’. The characters are multi-dimensional making us stop pre-judging and look beyond the values we hold dear about certain people. It explores what the world throws at us, and then the choices we make and the paths we take that can change our lives through ‘timing, planning, luck, belief’. That sometimes it takes just one person who believes in you, sees something in you, to turn your life around and that the little things can make a big difference.
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What an amazing debut novel! Boy Swallows Universe has jumped straight to the top of my outstanding novels for this year. Trent Dalton has somehow managed to spin a yarn about a Brisbane boy growing up amidst poverty, violence and crime while infusing it with love, joy and humour. His words and characters leap off the page with freshness and originality and yet you feel you know these people and the streets they live on. Although not autobiographical, the novel is reportedly based on Dalton’s own childhood in the tough suburbs of Brisbane, the people he knew and the journey he took to become an award winning journalist.

It’s the 1980s and 12 y old Eli Bell lives with his Mum Frances and stepdad Lyle in the Brisbane suburbs. He seemingly has a normal Aussie childhood, tearing off on his bike, playing in the streets and worshipping the Parramatta Eels, except for the fact that his older brother Gus is mute, having elected to give up speaking some years ago (after a traumatic event), his parents are drug dealers and his baby sitter is a notorious ex-crim called Slim (a real life character also known as the Houdini of Boggo Road). That all changes when Lyle is caught out by his boss doing a bit of extracurricular dealing and is dragged off by his brutal henchman never to be seen again, Eli’s Mum is sent to jail and Eli and Gus go to live with their depressed, drunken father. 

Despite all the violence and crime around him, Eli wants to grow up to be a good person and become a journalist providing he can navigate his way through warring street gangs and heroin dealers, somehow survive school and find a paper willing to take him on. Dalton’s story is engaging and compelling, beautifully written and peopled with fully fleshed characters with an ending that will have you cheering for Eli as he gets his chance to take on the drug lords.

I should also say how much I love the cover with that colour and energy bursting outwards (just like the novel). The little bluebird in the centre has a significant meaning for Eli and the three word title (and chapter headings) reflect advice given to Eli when he meets his future news editor (that a story should be able to be summed up in three words).
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“Lyle says he approaches a drug deal in the same way he approaches Mum when she’s in a bad mood. Stay on your toes. Stay alert. Don’t let them stand too close to the kitchen knives. Be flexible, patient, adaptable. The buyer/angry Mum is always right.”

Oliver Twist meets The Godfather. Those were the first books that came to mind. Films and TV that came to mind were Breaking Bad, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sopranos, and possibly a bit of Stephen King. But it’s 100% Trent Dalton, and what an absolute legend he is! This is bound to be at the top of my favourites list for a long time.

“Nothing connects a city quite like South-East Asian heroin.”

This is based on his life, his upbringing, his alcoholic dad, drug-affected mother and drug-dealer boyfriend ("Lyle" of the opening quotation), and the whole violent, vicious drug scene where he grew up near Brisbane with three brothers. The book, however, has only Eli telling the story and he has only one brother. This is a novel, not a memoir, although if you listen to the author's interviews, you could be excused for thinking it is, and I'm scared to think how many of these life-threatening experiences may have been his!

Eli Bell is 12, one year younger than August “Gus” Bell, who doesn’t speak. We learn about the harrowing near-drowning that triggered that, and as for the rest, I really don’t know where to start. It is a fabulous coming-of-age story like no other than I can think of. Trent Dalton is already an acclaimed feature writer and journalist* (see below), but this is way beyond that. 

He lets the character of Slim Halliday (who was a real-life convicted criminal) teach young Eli how to deal with whatever life throws at you. I know him only as the character in the book, although Dalton knew him in real life. In the book, he was known for having survived Black Peter, the name for the solitary confinement most prisons call the hole. 

“Slim says half of his Boggo Road prison mates would have died after a week in Black Peter because half of any prison population, and any major city of the world for that matter, is filled with adult men with child minds. But an adult mind can take an adult man anywhere he wants to go.
. . . 
‘I could do things with time in there,’ Slim says. ‘I got so intimate with time that I could manipulate it, speed it up, slow it down. Some days all you wanted was to speed it up, so you had to trick your brain.’”

He would take himself fishing, mentally, catch fish, clean them, cook them, roll a smoke, watch the sunset and pass the time so busily he was surprised to see the end of the day. But, when he had an hour in the sun in the exercise yard, he learned how to slow down time and stretch it out to feel like several hours. What a great skill.

Another trick he had made me think instantly of The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly about memory systems in civilisations around the world. 

“Slim says a good way for me to remember the small details of my life is to associate moments and visions with things on my person or things in my regular waking life that I see and smell and touch often. Body things, bedroom things, kitchen things. This way I will have two reminders of any given detail for the price of one.”

Slim would choose marks and scars and spots on his body as his memory points the way we might collect souvenirs to remind us of something or the Australian Aboriginal memory code actually stores memories in places and trees and landscape.

“He’d thumb the peaks and valleys of his knuckles and they wold take him there, to the hills of the Gold Coast hinterland, take him all the way to Springbrook Falls, and the cold steel prison bed frame of cell D9 would become a water-worn limestone rock and the prison hole’s cold concrete floor beneath his bare feet summer-warm water to dip his toes into . . .”

Dalton can write the longest sentences, and they are always just the right length for me. His timing is great, his characters are wonderful and terrifying and the story is warm, and scary and thrilling and believable. Eli adores his parents and his mum’s boyfriend and his “best friend” Slim. He is basically a good kid, but he does get up to more than innocent childhood mischief, and no wonder. 

We meet all of these people, not the least of whom is his mute brother Gus who writes in the air with his finger, which Eli reads easily, even backwards sometimes. Gus likes to indicate he sees the future – we’re not so sure, but something is going on there. The chapters begin with three-word titles - “Boy Writes Words” and “Boy Loses Luck” and “Boy Parts Sea” – the kind of three-word summary an editor he eventually works for demands a writer use to describe a story. 

The drug lords, the heavies with knives and machetes, the really, really, REALLY scary dudes – these are all part and parcel of growing up for young Eli Bell. And apparently, a lot of it, including the seeing Mum in prison on Christmas Day were all part of life for young Trent Dalton. I’m so glad he discovered that he was a boy who could write words, and not just in the air.

Beautifully written. Memorable characters, places you can see and smell, and that sense of time and space you had when you were a kid. They’re all here.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for the preview copy from which I’ve quoted. I haven’t begun to do this justice. Listen to the author here. He comes across as irrepressibly cheerful and enthusiastic. What a life! What a story!

or here

*“Podcast guest: Trent Dalton
Trent Dalton is a staff writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine and former assistant editor of The Courier Mail. He’s a two-time winner of a Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, a three-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.”

[My Goodreads review includes a photograph of Trent Dalton at the Better Reading podcast.]
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This is an extraordinary story! While the author Trent Dalton is journalist this is his first novel and as a debut novel it is indeed extraordinary. The writing is intense and passionate but flows as the the story of two brothers Eli and Gus, in the 1980s around Brisbane, unfolds. While at times it is puzzling and enigmatic, I found myself captivated and drawn into the characters and the story - even when at times I thought was ‘having my leg pulled’. There are parts that were incredibly sad while others that were amusing and laughable. The vivid and detailed writing, indeed painted a picture that came alive as I read. Outstanding!
Highly recommended read.

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for a copy to read and review.
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Eli Bell notices details. He is taught the value of this skill when he is twelve years old by his infamous friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday, who is known as the ‘Houdini of Boggo Road’ for his successful prison escapes. Remembering the small details of life, by associating moments and visions with things on his person or familiar objects to assist with recall of the memories, is what helped Slim survive in prison. Eli remembers Slim’s stories and advice in detail. He hones his skill of noticing detail, with the hope it will help him get a job as a newspaper reporter. He scrutinizes the people around him, especially the men, analysing the influences on their lives and attempting to understand what it means to be a good man. The analysis reveals the multiple dimensions of people and the different roles they combine, leading him to conclude that most are a mixture of good and bad. 

Eli’s story is recorded as detailed fragments of memories, and through the narrative he searches to understand his memories: memories of a traumatic event which caused his brother to stop speaking and resulted in his parent’s separation; memories of his mother’s drug dealing boyfriend who is a father figure to him but mysteriously disappears; memories of the violent man his mother moves in with on her release from prison; memories of corresponding with some of Slim’s friends in prison; memories of meeting various key figures in Queensland’s underworld in both calm and frightening scenarios. A lot of these fragments are confronting. It is surprising that Eli and his brother survive such trauma. Eli recounts them in such a pragmatic way, along with his hopes of raising enough money to buy a house in a nice tree filled suburb and working as a crime reporter alongside the beautiful Caitlin Spies. The resilience and simplistic hope that Eli and his brother have is remarkable. They persist despite incredible adversity.

As time passes, Eli begins to understand how his memories are linked and finds out additional information. The fragments in the story gradually come together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, culminating in a spectacular ending.
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Eli Bell is 12 years old and in year 7 at Darra State School in Queensland. He has had an unusual and dysfunctional childhood, growing up surrounded by drug users and drug dealers. In fact he like considers his only friend and mentor to be a thug named Slim. Eli's older brother is August or Gus for short. Since the age of 6 Gus hasn't said a word. But the boys are close and Eli can interpret Gus's stares and decipher the words he writes in the air. Together the boys navigate their way through to adulthood trying to avoid the many dangerous pitfalls life throws at them and aim to make it out in one piece.

This book was such a joy to read. Eli is a wiity, intelligent and endearing character who has endured a hard life growing up in an environment of drugs and bullying. The characters, including the unsavoury ones, are well crafted and even those that make a small appearance have a fascinating and often humourous back story. Dalton tells a wonderful story made all the richer by his insights into Australian culture and his own experiences. There is so much to like about this this book and there is something for everyone to enjoy.
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To say I was excited to discover a novel by Trent Dalton is a massive understatement.   Boy Swallows Universe is his debut novel but I've adored the authors writing for years.  He's an award winning journalist and I cannot get enough of the way he tells a story, the compassion in his words and the way I feel I know the people he writes about.     And so it was with the characters he brought to life in this novel.      

Eli Bell our protagonist is a young boy in Brisbane in the early 80's.  His older brother Gus has been mute since age six but has what Eli believes to be special powers.      His mother loves her sons desperately but it's fair to say she and her partner Lyle run with a bad crowd and make some questionable decisions.     They wanted a better life for the boys so started dealing heroin and have now made enemies of some dangerous people.     Eli's best friend is a notorious ex-criminal who had served time for murder; he's pen pals with a convicted sergeant-at-arms of an outlaw motorcycle gang.  He's exposed to things no boy  should be, and yet, amongst the crime, the coarse language (f-bombs and c-bombs galore), the violence (domestic and otherwise) there is love, there is learning, and believe it or not there is goodness.      Sure I questioned whether some elements were plausible but, to be frank, I didn't really care and just got swept away in the story.    

I found this to be a book of contrasts and contradictions.   Dalton delivered some supposedly good guys who were evil and vice versa.   He expertly blended fact with fiction.   He wove elements of fantasy into the harsh reality of this story and somehow managed to transport me to a time and place which was incredibly familiar to me whilst simultaneously completely foreign to me.    It was a unique story and one I thoroughly enjoyed it.  

My thanks and congratulations to Trent Dalton for his wonderful words.  Thanks also to HarperCollins Publishers Australia and NetGalley for the opportunity of reading this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review which it was my pleasure to provide.
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Who would have thought that a story about a boy and his mute brother whose mother and partner are heroin dealers would be such fun to read? Set in the 1980s in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, Eli Bell is a smart boy full of wit and wisdom far beyond his years in search of what it means to be a good man. This is a rollicking good yarn full of laugh out loud moments but with heart as well. The voice of Eli is unique and engrossing. It's simply a wonderful book from start to finish. My only quibble is the rather Hollywood-ish climax and resolution but I can see why Dalton took that option. There is plenty to contemplate amongst this rip-roaring tale which is loosely based on the author's own life. Certainly the best book I've read in ages.
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This is a very unusual novel. I found it hard to get into but by the end of the first chapter I was hooked. The two main characters- brothers Eli and August- are unforgettable. The story is complicated, fantastic and satisfying- few books make me laugh out loud or cry and this one achieved both. The writing is amazing. I will not attempt to give a synopsis of the story- just make sure you get a copy!
Trent Dalton is my new favourite Australian author.
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