Perhaps this novel should be retitled – Book Swallows Reader. I was completely absorbed, swallowed whole by the world created by Trent Dalton in this, his debut novel.

To most people, young Eli Bell’s life would seem a horrific mess (junkie mother, heroin-dealing stepfather, ex-murder crime babysitter, mute brother …) but recounted from a child’s perspective this story is told with a captivating combination of gruesome realism and magical optimism. Dark subjects, recounted with a lightness of pen.

Reading’Boy Swallows Universe’ felt a bit like following Hansel into a dark wood. From the first line ‘Your end is a dead blue wren … ‘ the reader is offered a few unanswered and intriguing ‘crumbs’. Empathising immediately with young Eli’s plight you feel compelled to follow him into the unknown, feeling increasingly apprehensive about what you suspect lies ahead, and, with everything crossed, hoping everything will turn out well.

The characterisation in this story is convincing and gripping. The relationships between Eli and his family (especially his bother August) and friends made me wince at times, but those relationships were also full of love and moved me both to laughter and tears. The baddies were convincing because they seemed so ‘real’ either because of their situations, or the fact that they had alleviating characteristics that you could empathise with (to some extent!). Good and bad were upended and interwoven.

I don’t want to give anything away, but I definitely give this novel a heart-felt thumbs up. Trent Dalton is seriously a master of prose and story-telling. Superb! Sum it up in just three words: Book swallows reader!

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