A Genre for our Generation: Heather Taylor Johnson reviews ‘The Swan Book’ by Alexis Wright

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. Giramondo Publishing 2013

The-Swan-Book-cover-199x300It was with great trepidation that I opened up Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book because I had read Carpentaria and likened the reading process to that of Ulysses. As with Joyce, I got that Wright was doing something new with language and, as with Joyce, I therefore understood that Carpentaria was an important book, but I can’t say that I enjoyed reading either (and just for the record, I finished both). The book was downright difficult, sometimes teetering on will-I-ever-get-to-the-end kind of difficult. Why, then, did I even think about reading The Swan Book? Because Wright’s risk-taking with storytelling stayed with me, and though Carpentaria still intimidates me as it stares me down from my bookshelf, I’ve never stopped thinking about it. And I suppose that’s why I need to compare the two books before I can move on to talk about The Swan Book in its own right. The Swan Book is just as innovative, just as Big, just as enviable a feat as its predecessor, yet the reading process was far from difficult; I loved every minute of it, and I could’ve gone on reading for weeks and weeks. I think it’s the intensity of the imagery. I think it’s the swans.

Oblivia is a tragically mute Aboriginal girl living on an old shell of a boat with Bella Donna, a European refugee half mad from global warming disasters and the memory of landwars, half mad from waiting for her own white swan to find her in the swamp among the hundreds, maybe thousands, of black swans keeping the pair company. It’s an unconventional friendship but Bella Donna is sure Oblivia is better off with her than in the hollow of the tree she’d pulled the girl out from. Oblivia doesn’t question their friendship, only knows it is what it is: home. And after Bella Donna dies, and Oblivia remains on the hull, the swans become all that she knows: her home.

Poor Oblivia! Just as Bella Donna was sure the girl was better off with her, so is Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia. He takes her from the swamp and brings her to the city as his ‘promised wife’, trying to hold onto traditional law regardless of Oblivia’s human rights. What follows is the story of Oblivia trying to get back home – in her mind and geographically – with the help of a bevy of black swans.

Truly this is cli-fi, a genre for our generation, at its most stylised. When our mistreatment of the Earth turns our world upside down, does our ability to relate to one another follow suite? When land becomes devastated, do we, too, fall in a heap of hopelessness or, maybe worse, ambivalence? In a time and place where 33.5 C is considered ‘too cold’, climate change contributed to a need for changeover to traditional laws held in the hearts and passed down in the stories of the traditional custodians of the land, but this is no solution. Wright tackles the urgency for environmental change while simultaneously drawing our attention to infractions of human rights through Australia’s long history of governmental intervention. For instance, the swamp, or ‘Swan Lake’ is a Relocation Camp, or an Aboriginal Detention Centre, and it’s a cesspool of rubbish. There are traces of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (or ‘the intervention’), the Stolen Generation, our appalling treatment of Boat People and centuries of misogyny. If the swans (and the talking monkey and the lone owl and the slave camels) make for fine symbolism in this cautionary anthropocentric tale, then there is good reason to believe that Wright’s main aim here is to tell us to wake up – we’re fucking everything up! Brecht famously said that ‘art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.’ With The Swan Book, Wright is hammering away. ‘I like challenges,’ she told the audience at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week; ‘I came from a background of challenges.’

If this sounds overwhelming, it is. But Wright balances out the chaos of the story (and our world) with magic and mythology. The fact that swans seem to land on each page in a swirl of concentric circles – never fully encapsulating any one theme, yet playing a role in every action and reaction – allows the reader to get a little lost; and one good thing about getting a little lost is finding your way. Add in a complex grammar in which past tense moves to present in the same paragraph, the same sentence, the same thought, and things can get pretty disorienting at first. But hang in there because soon the storytelling aspect of the book (that which is injected straight into the heart of her writing) will take over and grammatical inconsistencies feel natural and right and you’ll begin to think ‘Aha! This is why she’s up for the Miles Franklin again! This is why she’s possibly the most important writer writing now!’ With The Swan Book, Wright challenges the physicality, the morality and the essence of our nation’s geographical landscape, cultural landscape and literary landscape. Ultimately this is a Dreamtime story, teaching us about our past and cautioning us about our future. It is no grander than any other you have read, just written with an impeccable attention to detail.

– Heather Taylor Johnson


Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of three poetry books, Exit WoundsLetters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town and Thirsting for Lemonade. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and occasionally teaches it at Flinders University. Her novel, Pursuing Love and Death, is published by HarperCollins.

The Swan Book is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/the-swan-book/

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