The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright

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The Swan Book

Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is hypnotic and disturbing. Wright pairs the long history of injustice to Australian Aborigines with a complete break down in the world’s climate to create a desolate, dying landscape, populated by people who have lost their roots. Throughout the book, we watch two kinds of people. The first kind wait for things to happen to them, who passively survive their circumstances. The second kind, the kind who try to change their circumstances, are rarer. But The Swan Book is not a simple story of active versus passive people; it also explores how interference cane make things so much worse.

Oblivia Ethyl(ene) lives at the heart of this book. As a child, she was raped by a gang of boys and has never completely come back from that experience. Instead, she lives in a universe of her own making, disconnected from most of the other people who live in the Swan Lake refugee camp. The camp is named for the hundreds of black swans that have migrated there after losing their habitat. Oblivia, who does not speak, is raised by the woman who found her after she went missing. Bella Donna is a climate refugee from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Bella Donna does her best for Oblivia, teaching her about the swans that once guided her to a new home, as well as all the other stories she knows about swans. Oblivia is also raised by the Harbour Master, an angry old man who is supposed to remove the giant sand mountain in the camp.

Swan Lake is polluted and, because it’s an old refugee camp, mostly for Aborigines, it has been mismanaged for years. Oblivia is mostly ignored by the other people, except when she’s mocked. Mostly, Oblivia drifts through life, her head full of swans and swan stories. All this changes when Warren Finch arrives. Warren, raised to be the great hope of the Aboriginal peoples, once had a dream of a swan maiden. He promised to marry this girl who was damaged before becoming that swan maiden. When he arrives at Swan Lake, it turns Oblivia’s life completely on its head.

Be warned, however. The Swan Book is not a romance. It does not follow any of the expected plot paths for a love story. Oblivia is terrified of her new fiancé and has now idea what he wants from her. Instead, the story of Warren and Oblivia is another example of what happens when outsiders who think they know best interfere before knowing all the facts. Life in Swan Lake is not good, but at least Oblivia can function there. Outside of the camp, which Warren promptly has destroyed, sets Oblivia even further adrift from the world.

The best descriptor for The Swan Book, apart from disturbing, is hypnotic. Because we are in Oblivia’s head so much, we drift with her as she follows the swans and thinks about swan lore. Because our protagonists and antagonists are Aboriginal, we are also pulled into age-old stories and laws about the land. And, because all of the world is in upheaval, there is little familiar to hang on to. This is a very unusual book. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to make it past the first few pages, at least until I got pulled into Oblivia’s story and world.

I could also classify The Swan Book as an idea book, more than a plot or a character book. The narrative rambles so much that almost every paragraph contains a lesson or a theme to ponder on. I read The Swan Book in one day, but I don’t recommend that. This is definitely one of the books Sir Francis Bacon would recommend that we chew and digest.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 June 2016.

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