Brisbane, 1983: A lost father, a mute brother, a mum in jail, a heroin dealer for a stepfather and a notorious criminal for a babysitter. It’s not as if Eli’s life isn’t complicated enough already.
But Eli’s life is about to get a whole lot more serious. He’s about to fall in love. And he has to break into prison 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.
I received a copy of this book from Harper Collins UK – Harper Fiction – Borough Press via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
I’m always a little wary of critically acclaimed, and over-hyped books, often they are not as good as they are reputed to be. So I started this one with trepidation. Initial impressions are that is honest, raw, and full of experiences of urban life in Brisbane that do not make easy reading.
Eli and August, are brothers, their carers’ lives are driven by drugs, and the boys have to constantly battle adversity to keep the family together. Despite the family’s dysfunctionality, the love the boys feel for their mother and each other dominates this story and puts into perspective many of the bizarre and often frightening experiences they endure.
At the end of this lengthy book, there is a note from the author, about how the story came into being, what it means to him and the story’s themes. It is, on reading this that you appreciate, it is more of a memoir than fiction, although seen through a young child’s and then young boys eyes. I wish I’d read this note first because it grounds this complex story, and makes it more relatable.
There is a great deal of imagination in this story, magic if you like, which I attributed to a young boy’s need to escape from the harshness of his life, and give himself the power to overcome some its more sordid aspects.
I’m still not sure if I liked it, but the writing is engaging and authentic, the story moves forward in an understandable way, and it gives an insider view of Australian life, particularly life in Brisbane and Queensland, through a young person’s viewpoint.
The characters are the lifeblood of this story, and the author indicates that they are based on people he knows or a medley of them, in his personal and journalistic life. Many are not likeable, and the danger the children are exposed to is disturbing, but they are real, and the reality of this story is what stays with you.
An unusual tale of growing up and surviving life in a gritty urban setting. With a cast of characters, covering the spectrum of humanity, and the humour, love and magic required to reach adulthood.