Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
Harper (2018)
Young Adult
Rating 2/5

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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.

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” Kelly Link

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” by Kelly Link
From, Stranger Things Happen (2001)
Rating 5/5

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In “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” a man writes letters from the afterlife to his wife. He tries to remember her name, or any connections he had to the world of the living, but all he can think of is the names of people and things that he knows are dead. He thinks of how if he could just remember her name his situation might improve. In his letters, he confesses, not only the things that he has done wrong to his wife, but also to the love that he feels for her, and to other things that he has done in life that have made him feel guilty. All the while, he explores the place that he is trapped. The story is an interesting examination of place, guilt, memory, and self-discovery.

When I was younger I used to love reading anything epistolary, but, especially in adult fiction, you do not see much. In “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” however, Link uses the form to its full advantage. Reading this story is an exercise in discovery, not only for the reader, but for the narrator as well as he tries to reason out what is left of him as a person. Link manipulates the form to give herself plenty of room to build up the world around the story. This gives readers a chance not only to discover the world around the narrative character, but it also gives them a chance to flesh out the protagonist in a more intimate way. While this certainly isn’t on the epistolary novels that I enjoyed as a child, it does make exciting use of the form that is well worth checking out.

This story is fraught with emotional tension and a sense of unknowing that makes for a macabre read. The monster at the heart of this story is guilt, but the protagonist cannot face his guilt directly because he cannot put a name to it. Yet, through his letters to his wife he is still able to explore aspects of it as fleeting glimpses. This gives the story forward motion from start to finish and allows it to maintain a high level of intrigue while also taking topics that have become rather commonplace in literature—infidelity, death, bullying—and presenting them in a way that feels completely new and fresh. 

If you’re looking for a horror story where the monster is self, then this story is for you. If you want a study on the afterlife, this story is for you. If you’re looking for an impeccably crafted and compelling tale, this story is for you. 

BONUS: Listen to “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” on Pseudopod (read by Ansom Mount)

Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “The Dream,” by Bourbon Princess with this post.