Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton is a coming-of-age tale that takes place in Australia against the backdrop of poverty, violence, and drug dealing. When the story starts, 12 year old Eli Bell knows what his mother and her boyfriend are up to, and he thinks that he can make them better heroin dealers. When their kingpin overload discovers their plot, however, he takes violent action and upheaves Eli’s life. Though Eli feels as if his scheming might have cost the family, he still believes that he has a gift for noticing details, and he plans to use that gift to bring his family together, to catch the Kingpin, and to improve the conditions of his own life.
I pined after this book for a few months. Everything about it seemed like something that I would enjoy immensely. It has a great cover and title and comes highly reviewed, and so I was sure that I too would be enthralled by it. I was wrong. In fact, this is one of the books that I have least enjoyed in a long while. So much so, that had I not committed to writing this review I would not have finished it. (I think life is too short to read books that aren’t bringing you joy.)
What sticks out to me most about this book is just how unoriginal it feels. From the brother who is selectively mute, to the ex-convict showing up at the right moment to save the day, and various plot points that you will see coming from a mile away, there was nothing in the pages of this book to make it stand out from any other book that explores the same themes. At the surface, it seems like this book is full of twists and turns, but when you actually experience them it feels like riding a kitty coaster as opposed to the real thing. As an avid reader with an active imagination, I can often dream up where a novel is going, but this one was just too easy and felt very neat.
Beyond its story problem, there are several elements of this book that made me uncomfortable as a reader. First, is that I do not think that this book goes far enough to highlight the consequences of illegal drug dealing when you are still an adolescent. I really don’t appreciate anything that glamorizes such illicit activities, but especially a narrative where the character still essentially gets all the unrealistic things that they want. I also did not like how the romance played out between Eli and Caitlyn—which to me felt like a teenage boy’s gross fantasy. When Eli meets Caitlyn she is adult enough to be working as a crime reporter at a newspaper, and Eli is still a young teenager. Despite that, Eli tells Caitlyn that when he is a man they will be together, and because I’ve already told you that this story is too neat, that is exactly what happens. To me, it reads as weird reverse grooming, and I cannot imagine a grown career woman going for a teenage boy as her partner—especially one that she has known since his youth.
Overall, I did not like this book, and sadly, I would not recommend it. It’s characters are too predictable and neat, the situations that it invents are too easily conquered, and the bad parts are too bad.
Only some of you will understand this, but my reign as Paula is over.
Interested in hearing about a book that I love? Check out my review of Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.