Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 22, 2013

The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright

The Swan BookGet set for a wild ride with Alexis Wright’s new novel, The Swan Book!  It’s exhilarating, confronting, funny, touching, angry, wise and unforgettable.

I am mildly worried that perhaps I should have re-read it in its entirety more than once before tackling writing about it, because I suspect that repeated readings will reveal all kinds of aspects that I’ve missed or misunderstood.  Indeed, I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses as I read: it has the promise of the same kind of riches that reveal themselves the more times you read it.  There are allusions and allegories all over the place, myths I recognise and those I don’t, circularities that seem to get lost but perhaps I missed the route, and so on.  But you’re not here at ANZ LitLovers to see what an expert makes of a book like this, you’re here to see what an ordinary, interested reader discovers.  So with that caveat, read on.

It’s not a book that you read to find out what happens, though what happens is fascinating.  The Swan Book is set in a dystopian future where climate change has altered everything.  This in itself if confronting, because a dystopian future conjures up all kinds of hideous scenarios, all of them involving radical, frightening social change as in The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road. But by leaving in place the Northern Territory Intervention and various other social engineering policies that apply only to our First Peoples, Alexis Wright’s novel shows us only too vividly that Australia’s Aborigines are already living a dystopian future: non-indigenous readers have to get used to trenchant criticism very early on in this book, and there is no let up though it’s often delivered with the black humour that seems to be a distinctive feature of Black writing in Australia.  Don’t read it if you’re not prepared to wear it.  The more you think you might not like this, the more important it probably is that you read it.

The central character is Oblivia.  She doesn’t say a word throughout the novel because she is traumatised, the victim of gang rape by a bunch of petrol-sniffing youths.  She also symbolises the way Aboriginal people have been silenced since the European invasion because even when they speak no one listens.  This is most graphically depicted in the blackest of black humour scenes towards the end of the novel when nobody listens to the elders who try to end the farce of endless grief-as-public-spectacle á la Princess Diana.  They explain that a man’s spirit must be laid to rest in accordance with his culture:

All services for the dearly beloved, the mourning, the last respects, country and western music, hymns and special foreign music, were heard continuously, and on a daily basis.  In actual fact, nobody thought a thing about the consequences of unabated mourning.  Certainly no one questioned the excessiveness of sorrow, and whether there was going to be an end point of mourning for Warren Finch.  That was until finally, one day in the middle of a lot of smoke, what looked like most of the countryman’s wildflowers and gum leaves arrived with scores of his ceremonial elders from his Aboriginal Government, and they sung his world.  They said that they were smoking his spirit back to their own traditional country.  His spirit was no longer in this place.  This was when the sky practically fell down, when they – these people (his own people) – wanted to remove the coffin from the cathedral.

Total pandemonium broke out between all the different types of mourners and officials one, two and three, with more to follow, told these cheeky people from the bush of some far-flung part of the country with an unpronounceable name that nobody had ever heard of, that Warren Finch’s importance as a man far outweighed any of their cultural considerations, and hum! Peace Brother! Go in peace.  Let that be an end of the matter.  (p. 286)

Then follows a macabre kind of Olympic Torch road-trip round Australia with the coffin in a Fresh Food People refrigerated truck…

There are some unforgettable characters in Oblivia’s curious life.  She was rescued as a girl by Aunty Bella Donna who (being a white European climate change refugee) is then accused of provoking the arrival of the Army in the dusty polluted swamp where they live, unwanted people living in a convenient dumping ground.

What were unwanted people?  Well! They were little people who can’t fight a big thing like the Army in charge of all the Aboriginal children – little pets owned by the Mothers of Government who claimed to love them more than their own ‘inhumane’ families. Disgraceful business! (p. 50)

But it is Aunty Bella Donna, who might have been an angel, who knows how to call the swans which become a guiding light in Oblivia’s life.  These swans derive from Aunty’s stories from Europe, but the ones which descend on the swamp are the affront to philosophical Logic: black Australian swans, not the white European ones that were a king’s own personal property, poached on pain of death, and thought to be the only ones in the world.  (As white people believe themselves to be the most important people in the world).  The black swans are the most important birds of many which are referenced in this book, and they are the ones that trigger Oblivia’s rebellion and escape from the apartment tower where she is dumped by Warren Finch.

This Warren Finch (a finch being a small bird, showy but lacking the power of larger birds) is the character who really messes up Oblivia’s life.  He turns up to take Oblivia as his ‘promise bride’ and demolishes her homeland (the Swamp) as a wedding present.  The way in which Oblivia is forced to submit to removal and subsequent participation in a farce of a wedding in which she cannot even say the words ‘I do’ reminded me of the way 12 and 14-year-old European princesses were traded as collateral in inter-country treaties.  Dressed up like little dolls in jewels and furs, these little girls were packed off to a place they knew nothing about where often they could not even speak the language, to cement alliances and stave off wars.  Oblivia’s role is to be First Lady to the first Aboriginal President of Australia, and it matters not a scrap that she is manifestly unwilling: they digitise her so that she watches herself on TV, doing the things that First Ladies do.  And all the while she is locked up in a tower in a flooded city that is eerily reminiscent of Brisbane, even though Alexis Wright must have been writing this book before those floods took place.

Warren Finch encapsulates the tendency for both government and media to rely on Aboriginal spokesmen as representatives for the diverse peoples of Indigenous Australia.  ‘Anyone would think that he had been the only Aboriginal person on the planet. The only one who had a voice, and could voice his opinion.’ (p. 291)  Warren has, in the process of assuming power in the dominant society, betrayed his own values and abandoned his country.  Wright’s satire of this character is particularly savage.

There were times in reading this long, unwieldy novel when I lost my bearings and floundered in the torrents of language, but I never wanted to stop reading.  Alexis Wright and her publishers have invited non-indigenous readers on a wild ride, but the journey to better understanding is worth it.  I remember Kate Grenville addressing a Melbourne audience – at a Festival of Ideas? the venue is beyond recall but the message was unforgettable – about the need for authors to engage readers in the issue of climate change through fiction: this novel The Swan Book is the one that will make its readers sit up and take notice, because the imagined future is too horrible to contemplate.

Other reviews: see Marilyn’s at Me, You and Books, Geordie Williamson at The Australian, Jane Gleeson-White at the Sydney Review and Jen Webb at the ABR (subscribers only).

Author: Alexis Wright
Title: The Swan Book
Publisher: Giramondo, 2013
ISBN: 9781922146410
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Availability

Fishpond: The Swan Book
Or direct from Giramondo


Responses

  1. Thanks for an excellent review. I also loved the book and found it hard to review. You once asked how Indigenous authors use their experiences in their writing. For me, Wright is a fine example of turning her tradition into some than more than an account of Indigenous life as many authors do. These are valuable, of course, but Wright is more creative. In the process she adds in universal elements like climate change and loss

    • Indeed yes. I’ve read a number of indigenous memoirs and yes, they are often important testimonies, but I am always delighted when I find a work of indigenous fiction, because sometimes, as Christina Stead said, fiction is more true than non-fiction.

      • It is only since I began reading more globally that I finally understood what fictional truth means. They have pushed me to see truths that are not factual.

  2. Excellent review, Lisa. I was tempted by this novel in a book store at Cairns Airport but thought it might be a bit unwieldy, both in terms of the story and the size/weight of the book. Plus, I haven’t readCarpentaria yet, though I had good intentions to do so in July until real life got in the way. It sounds like The Swan Book is an example of CliFi (climate change fiction), which a colleague of mine wrote about on her blog recently. http://www.suzannefishermurray.com/climate-fiction-waking-us-up-as-we-sleep-walk-to-disaster/
    I’ve added it to my wish list and will investigate whether its available in ebook form to save on suitcase space.

    • CliFi? Amazing that it has a genre label of its own already…
      I’m in Qld with limited WiFi here so will check out Suzanne’s site when back in civilisation LOL.
      I hope you have a safe trip home:)
      Lisa

      • Thanks Lisa. I’m heading to the city tomorrow (Tuesday) for a look in the book shops!

        • Wish I was with you! I am so sick of the humidity here…

  3. […] Lisa has just posted an excellent review of this book on her blog. Link it here. […]

  4. love the cover of this book ,heard an interview with her on abc podcast ,she is a writer I do want to try ( so many of these but it is on my wish list so one day !)

    • I suspect that Wright is going to be *The* writer that everyone remembers from this decade, or maybe longer. A completely different way of writing.

  5. Hello Lisa and Fellow Readers,
    This is Sonia from the U.S. I enjoyed reading the review of The Swan Book. I am a fan of Alexis Wright’s fiction. I was moved by the lengthy story and issues engaged in Wright’s novel, Carpenteria. I am anxious for more American book chains to offer and sell more literature by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. Recently, I was fortunate to get a copy of The Swan Book at a used book store. I plan to add it to my Spring reading list.

    • Hello Sonia, how nice to hear from a fellow enthusiast:) I agree, I think Alexis Wright is brilliant, and deserves to be widely read around the globe. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
      Best wishes, Lisa

  6. Just got around to reading this review. Great work, Lisa: thank you for reminding me how much I loved this hilarious, angry, incisive, prescient book. I thought it was utterly brilliant, far beyond and above anything else (that I’ve read) being published in Australia at the moment. And nice to know Kate Grenville is pushing Cli-fi (if only because it might eventually cause someone somewhere to read my book!). My fingers are crossed for the Swan Book in the Miles Franklin.

  7. […] you would like to read more erudite thoughts on The Swan Book than mine, see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers, and Jane Gleeson-White’s at the Sydney Review of […]

  8. […] The Swan Book by Alexis Wright (see my review) […]

  9. […] Steven Carroll, see my review of Spirit of Progress and a Sensational Snippet Brenda Niall, see my review of Mannix Christos Tsiolkas, see my review of The Slap and The Guardian’s review of Merciless Gods Chris Wallace-Crabbe, read some of his poems at The Australian Poetry Library Alexis Wright, see my review of The Swan Book    […]

  10. […] see also Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here) and Lisa at ANZLitLovers review of The Swan Book (here) […]


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