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The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright.

September 3, 2013

The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright.  Giramondo Publishing (July 30, 2013).




Another brilliant and beautiful novel by a talented Indigenous Australian who writes about belonging and what it means, to Indigenous people and all of us, to have and to lose a homeland.

 More and more Indigenous Australians are telling their own stories, some of them with great skill and beauty.  More and more readers are learning about what it has meant to be Indigenous.  Alexis Wright, however, is one of the few who are using their unique history and culture creatively and experimentally to address universal themes.  At one level, this is a very Australian book, full of details of the land and how the government has treated Indigenous people. It is told from an Indigenous perspective.  This story, however, is placed in the context of global climate change that can rob us all of our homelands and our sense of belonging.  Even deeper, Wright touches the sense of rejection, isolation, and loss that comes from being human. This is a mythic story; speculative, but not fantasy; a vision of what life could become if everything continues as it is.

Wright’s skillful writing constantly interweaves the beautiful and the ugliness of life.  Her prose is sophisticated, unique, and fast-paced enough to carry readers along with the narrative.  When I re-read the first chapter, however, I discovered an additional layer of richness that I had missed the first time through.  Probably Australians will pick up more of her allusions to the place and its politics.  This is a complex book, hard to summarize and analyze, especially for a non-literary, non-Australian like myself.

The Swan Book is set in the near future when climate change and wars over diminished resources have begun to devastate the globe.  Europeans have lost their homelands and thousands travel as nomads around the seas.  In Australia drought and freak weather have battered the land and people.  Near its northern coast, Indigenous people have returned to find their once pristine lake “fed by a spirit spring relative” has become a dumping place for old warships. Yet they stay despite army control, somewhat protected by the sheer isolation of the place.

Belle Donna, an old white woman, arrives in the lakeside community.  She is a refugee from the chaos into which Europe has fallen.  Now homeless, she is full of stories, “a foreigner’s Dreaming” of the big white swan that gave her people hope and led them out to the sea.  While she longs for the return of that swan, she feeds and talks to the black swans that begin to arrive in large numbers.  Bella Donna is a caring person, basically good, but one who retains the manners and trappings of European gentility. She still cherishes her swan bone, swan books and the spheres she uses in telling her stories.

It is Belle Donna who finds and rescues, Oblivia, the central character of the book.  Oblivia is an Indigenous girl, hidden for perhaps a decade in an enormous eucalyptus tree after having been raped by a group of teenage boys high on gasoline fumes.   Once rescued, she remains mute and childlike for years, but listens to Belle Donna and learns from her to care for the swans.  The larger community assumes that both the woman and the girl are crazy and leave them alone.

After Bella Donna dies, Warren Finch comes to visit the lake.  He belongs to a group of Indigenous Australians distantly related to those at Swan Lake.  Unlike them, however, his people have become prosperous by working the white man’s system, flattering and agreeing to what officials say.  Finch is their golden boy, “God’s gift to the world.”  Already next in line for the Australian presidency, he is to be the savior of the world’s Indigenous people although he is actually “half-caste.”  When he makes a surprise visit to Swan Lake in his Italian suit and “flash” car, he is appalled by the squalor of the people living there.  At first they are excited to actually have such a prominent Indigenous man in their village; one of their one who has made good.  Soon however they realize just how different he is and how little he understands them.

Finch has come to find Oblivia and take her away as his wife, claiming that she is his “promised bride” already married in Law.  The rest of the book follows Oblivia and Warren; their strange journey through the center of Australia, their dramatic wedding, and her life in a city being destroyed by the advancing sea.  Finally Oblivia and the black swans journey back toward the swamp on the northern coast

Wright has written an angry book, one that some will criticize as too angry.  She satirizes the failure and stupidity of Australian alexis-wrightgovernment in their dealings with Indigenous people.  Even if their measures were well-intended, they have disrespected and never understood those whom they claimed to help.  Indigenous Australians like Warren Finch also receive Wright’s biting scorn for their efforts to cash in on their identity to gain wealth and status.  Finch’s rise is an Australian phenomenon, but he is popular all around the world as a spokesperson for Indigenous people everywhere.

Other problems that Wright addresses are more global in scope.  She is caustic about how humanity has sought military solutions to problems and has contributed to global warming.  While earlier societies had included sacrifice in their worship, “modern man had become the new face of God, and simply sacrificed the whole earth.”  Dealing so openly with these issues could have resulted in a polemic book, but Wright’s treatment is too poetic to be polemic.

 This is an important book, even more important than her Carpentria, which won the Miles Franklin award.  I strongly recommend it all readers who delight in books of depth, complexity and beauty.

Wright was interviewed about The Swan Book on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.  Link here.

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

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2013 3:14 pm

    Hello Marilyn – and thank you for the mention:)
    I had wondered whether this book would ‘translate’ for an international audience, and you have answered that question splendidly!

    • September 27, 2013 2:20 pm

      Thanks. After all Wright warns that we will all have to face climate disasters. Besides, you probably picked up on more Australian references than I did, but I define a good book as one that moves readers beyond its particular place and people.

  2. October 30, 2013 11:22 am

    This sounds like an absolute must-read. Thanks so much for drawing my attention to it. I admire Carpentaria a great deal, but I think I will enjoy this one even more.

  3. maamej permalink
    July 13, 2015 12:47 am

    Lovely review. I’m also pleased to see it ‘translates’ well for a non-Australian reader. I think it may have been you who put me on to this book, and if it was I am so grateful. I found it challenging to read, because of the intensity of her style, but I loved it for many reasons, from her use of language to her biting commentary on Australian history, politics and policy regarding Aboriginal people.


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