If I had to choose only one word to describe this book, I think I would pick “stunning,” which in fact I have seen other reviewers of this book use. However, I believe the protagonist, Eli, who usually tries to pick three words to describe things, would also grant me three, so perhaps I would say “Author Encapsulates Universe.”
The novel – which, I discovered after reading it, turns out to be semi-autobiographical, begins in the 1980’s in Brisbane, Australia. In an interview, author Dalton and his mom agreed that the book was a “50-50 mix of fact and fantasy.”
Eli Bell – the narrator – is aged 12 when we first meet him. Along with his older brother August (a mash-up of Dalton’s three brothers) he lives with his mother and stepfather, both of whom are much beloved by the boys, in Darra, a run-down impoverished Brisbane suburb comprised of Polish and Vietnamese refugees. As Eli describes it, in one of the many sublime and illuminating flights of prose in this book:
“Darra is a dream, a stench, a spilt garbage bin, a cracked mirror, a paradise, a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup filled with prawns, domes of plastic crab meat, pig ears and pig knuckles and pig belly. Darra is a girl washed down a drainpipe, a boy with snot slipping from his nose so ripe it glows on Easter night, a teenage girl stretched across a train track waiting for the express to Central and beyond, a South African man smoking Sudanese weed, a Filipino man injecting Afghani dope next door to a girl from Cambodia sipping milk from Queensland’s Darling Downs. Darra is my quiet sigh, my reflection on war, my dumb pre-teen longing, my home.”
The story opens with a memory taken from the author’s own life depicting a scene between Eli and a family friend, Arthur ‘Slim’ Halliday, a man once dubbed the “Houdini of Boggo Road Gaol” for his extraordinary ability to escape from the notorious and “inescapable” Brisbane prison. Slim met Eli’s stepdad Lyle while on work release, and after prison, ended up doing odd jobs for the family and watching over the boys when their parents were away. (In the book, at any rate, the parents – former addicts who have stopped using drug themselves, now are drug dealers for the lucrative neighborhood business of running Golden Triangle heroin.)
Eli adored Slim, and Slim reciprocated, teaching Eli about life as he learned it in prison: the importance of noticing details; all that you can learn from your other senses besides your ears; and the observation that all people have both good and bad inside. Slim told Eli:
“The tricky part is learnin’ how to be good all the time and bad none of the time. Some of us get that right. Most of us don’t.”
Eli is obsessed with this question. He thinks often of the seminal moment in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker enters Yoda’s cave at Dagobah, and finds out about the potential for darkness within him. Which will Eli turn out to be: a good man, or a bad man? And which one can describe the men in his life? (He gets into a bit of trouble by asking them all.)
In light of Eli’s fixation on this point, Slim tells him further:
“. . . about the good and the bad… I should have told you . . . it’s nothing but a choice. There’s no past in it, there’s no mums and dads and no where you came froms. It’s just a choice. Good. Bad. That’s all there is.”
Eli in fact sees plenty of both good and bad in action, because of the presence of drugs and violent drug dealers in his life. He also observes, however, how choices made at an earlier point can curtail change further up the road. He is focused on how to avoid creating dead ends like that. He knows that he must take steps to ensure he is heading on the right path for his future before getting swallowed up by the universe, as he thinks happened to his parents.
Slim suggests to him: “Stop tellin everybody else’s story and start tellin’ your own for once. Do your time, before it does you.”
By the point when Eli is 18, which is when the story concludes, he has learned – just as Slim told him, that fate can be changed, and other people’s stories don’t have to be his. Further, he discovers that love and belief in goodness can sustain you through the worst of times, helping you to make the right choices, instead of just the easy ones.
Evaluation: This is a sprawling panorama of life amidst a world, as Dalton says in an interview, “swirling with a hundred social issues – alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence, generational social curses….” It is fresh, insightful, full of razor-sharp observations and astoundingly infused with optimism. Eli is an earnest and endearing boy who desperately aspires to goodness, in spite of all the cruelty around him, and the misfortunes to which he and his family were subjected.
Some of the scenes depicted are not for the faint-hearted, but I was awe-struck.
Note: After you have read this book, which I highly recommend, and you would like further insights into the story, you can check this summary of the Hindu story from the Bhagavata Purana, on the childhood of Krishna, the boy who swallowed the universe.
Published in the U.S. by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019