The new novel by Alexis Wright, whose previous novel Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award and four other major prizes including the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year Award. The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute teenager called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans driven from other parts of the country, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright's previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the wild energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale.
Read Caroline Baum's Review
Ok, confession time: I struggled with this. Just as I did with Carpentaria, which I pushed through, willing myself to get further as if hacking my way through dense rainforest telling myself that I was on to the Indigenous version of Cloudstreet (I was not the only one to think it, but even that did not help me succeed).
The same thing happened here. I got brief glimpses of brilliance, flashes of humour interspersed with furious rants about the Intervention and whitefella attitudes to the blackfella way of life (Closing The Gap is a slogan that earns special derision). But in the end the book defeated me.
Its premise is terrific: it's a futuristic, apocalyptic, dystopian vision of a continent of sea gypsies struggling in the aftermath of an environmental meltdown. Prophetic stuff. The Indigenous survivors (reminiscent of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild) nourish themselves with stories, myths and legends. The language is poetic, the imagery visually and often gorgeous (a hatching of blue butterflies near a fishing hole among the paperbarks) nature abundant and teeming, but the style is dense, repetitive and intimidating.
I know this is an important book by a major talent, and I admire its sweep and uncompromising ambition, the way it proclaims Aboriginal Magical Realism with boldness and defiance. But it's not an easy read, and its mockery is at times off-puttingly harsh, leaving this reader feeling slightly battered and unwelcome.
I hope it will find others with more courage, determination and persistence.
About the Author
Alexis Wright (born 25 November 1950) is an Indigenous Australian writer.
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her books include Grog War , a study of alcohol abuse in Tennant Creek , and the novels Plains of Promise , and Carpentaria , which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Victorian and Queensland Premiers’ Awards and the ALS Gold Medal, and was published in the US, UK, China, Italy, France, Spain and Poland. She is a Distinguished Fellow in the University of Western Sydney’s Writing and Society Research Centre.
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Comments about The Swan Book:
Amazing story, amazing writing. Make sure you can sit down and read it all day or just don't bother until you can. Its hard to maintain focus if you're distracted from the text. The dreamlike writing can take you amazing places if you allow it.
Number Of Pages: 360
Published: 1st August 2013
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.4 x 15.3 x 2.2
Weight (kg): 0.38