The Swan Book

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright is not an easy read.

The narration bounces between characters’ minds, omniscient but still unreliable. It took me a long time to figure out who the characters were, and through out the story, I had trouble figuring out what was a flashback or a memory. The world has elements of magical realism, blended elements of classical myth and unfamiliar (to me) aboriginal characters. Even though I enjoyed the descriptive prose, I felt like I was reading a collage and not a narrative.

Since there was barely a plot in the typical sense of rising action, climax, resolution, I can’t really describe the storyline. Oblivia, the main character, or as close as this book comes to what could be considered a main character, never speaks. She is mute after a trauma, but it took me a long time to figure out what happened to her and how she survived. At times, she is cared for by Bella Donna, a woman who seems to constantly speak, always telling stories and history and sometimes her own story, I think. There’s a political thread too, especially highlighted in Finch, the first aboriginal president, and in Bella Donna’s reasons for coming to Australia. I had a lot of trouble connecting with any of the characters, and didn’t really understand anyone’s motives or emotions. I enjoyed the allusions to mythological scenes, interesting tricks of language (especially when heavy-handed symbolism turned out to be more subtle and nuanced than I first saw), and for descriptions of Australian scenes, but I wasn’t reading for plot, characters, or the general feeling of wondering  what’ll happen next in a story.

I found the post-global warming world of rising sea levels and political instability both realistic and haunting, but overall this felt more like a collection of images than a novel.

I received an ARC from the publisher for review. All opinions are, of course, my own.


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