I didn’t come across Swallow The Air, the début novel of indigenous author Tara June Winch, by accident. In 2010, my family and I left our Melbourne home to spend a year in Broome in the far northwest of Australia. It was an eye-opening experience. There was the sheer physical beauty of the region for a start, and the radically different lifestyle of the tropics, dictated as it is by the climate. Most of all though, I have to confess that it was the first time any of us- my husband, myself, our two primary-school aged children- had been confronted with the realities of indigenous Australia. Roughly 35 percent of the population of Broome identify themselves as of aboriginal descent, and at the school my children attended more than half the student body was indigenous. As a result, we all learned a lot about aboriginal culture and beliefs – but also, less pleasantly, about the ongoing discrepancy between black and white in housing, in education, in health, in employment, in life span and outlook and place in the community. Some of my frustration and despair at things I saw found their way into tweets, and after reading those tweets novelist Rebecca Sparrow sent me a copy of Swallow The Air.
I’m so glad she did. Swallow The Air is an aboriginal story, but it is not the sort of aboriginality that we are comfortable with, that we like to trot out at opening ceremonies or World Cup bids, of dreamtimes and didgeridoos. Instead, Swallow The Air focuses on the fallout from the stolen generation and on Australia’s lingering racism; on the displacement of an entire race of people, on lives clouded by drink, drugs and despair.
Swallow The Air follows the travels of May, a fifteen year old aboriginal girl in search of her people, a history, and where she belongs. May’s father left the family when she was still a child after years of abusing his wife; unable to overcome her resultant depression and helplessness, May’s mother commits suicide in the first pages of the book. May and her brother Billy are then raised by her aunt, who soon starts to drink and is regularly beaten by her own partner. Billy turns to drugs and leaves home; May lights out herself soon afterwards, hitch-hiking to the Top End in search of her father and later ending up in Redfern’s Block, Lake Cowal and finally a mission in the ironically-titled town of Eubalong.
May’s fortunes unfold in a series of linked short stories – vignettes, really. These are tightly constructed, honed to the bone and awash with vivid, tactile language. May describes her aunt as “holding her booze like a butcher’s knife, cleaving off each part of herself”. A dead stingray washed up on the beach “looked exhausted, like a fat man in a tight suit after a greedy meal”; the mission is made up of identically run down houses “like someone’s idea of a fancy concentration camp… People spill in and out, trying to prise off the boundaries.” Of her year living in the Block, May says “I went in like a buttery cake and came out like a shotgun or a Monaro or a gaol sentence. Came out like a steel wall adorned in black tar.”
The word ‘black’ crops up again and again throughout the novel, and is clearly how May both defines herself, and is defined by others. Sadly – though perhaps realistically – her long search bears little fruit. May spots her father at a rodeo near Darwin, but is too afraid to approach him, suddenly overcome by memories of him beating her mother with a spanner and tipping boiling water over her while she is in the shower. When May finally tracks down a cousin of her mother’s the man laughs at her quest: “Stories, ha! What do you want to know? Where ya get your skin from, your tribal name, ya totem, ya star chart, the meaning of the world? Thought [we’d] give ya the answers- ha!… That place, that people, that something you’re looking for – it’s gone. It was taken away.”
Swallow The Air is an unflinching yet somehow lyrical account of the rift between black and white Australia; of what happens when you try and rid a people of their identity. Like May’s cousin, the book has no answers, but somehow that makes it an even more important and powerful read.
Thanks to Guest Reviewer – Kylie Ladd
When Kylie is not busy scribbling, she is also a delightful distraction on Twitter – follow her here…
Kylie’s Website: here…
About After the Fall:
The story of a friendship between two couples – and an affair that blows their worlds apart.
Two married couples: Kate and Cary, Cressida and Luke. Four people who meet, click, and become firm friends. But then Kate and Luke discover a growing attraction, which becomes an obsession. They fall in love, then fall into an affair. It blows their worlds apart. After the fall, nothing will ever be the same again.