The Swan Book: Moments of brilliance, but never engaged me (Did Not Finish)

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The Swan Book by Alexis Wright fantasy book reviewsThe Swan Book by Alexis Wright

I really wanted to like The Swan Book by Alexis Wright. I mean, it has so many elements I would usually find enticing by themselves or a few at a time, let alone all at once: magical realism, non-linear structure, multiple POVs, moments of high-flying lyricism, biting wit and satire, dystopia, sharp dialogue, a social conscience. But man, did I struggle with this one from just about the beginning. But I kept going. Like I said, all those elements. Plus, rave reviews and awards — those people couldn’t all be wrong, right? And there absolutely were early moments of sheer brilliance, enough so that I kept going, sure I would soon turn the corner and fall in love with it. Sure that the moments would turns into pages then into chapters. And I’d look back and think, “Silly me, what was I worried about?”

So I persevered on my trusty Kindle. Ten percent. Twenty percent. Thirty. Forty. Forty-five. Forty-six. Forty-six point six. Forty-six point seven. Point eight. Point eight-five. Well, you get the picture.

Finally, at 52%, I ran up the white flag, turned in my gun and badge, abdicated my readership position, surrendered my sword, tendered my resignation, ran for the hills, fled the… Well, you get the picture.

And this, in a nutshell, was half my problem with the novel — it had so many of my favorite elements. But it had so many. And they kept going. And going. For example. The Swan Book is set in a future Australia amongst the Aboriginal people in a world turned upside down by climate change. This, combined with Wright’s own heritage, means that it probably comes as no surprise that there is a lot of biting commentary on the relationship between the Australian government and the Aboriginal people (Wright does not look upon the government’s role, methods, or intentions with a kind eye, to say the least). As mentioned, it is biting, it is spot on, it is often, as with the best such work, both funny and depressing at the same time. But way before I reached the halfway point I’d gotten the same point multiple times. Not just the generality but the same specific examples.

The same issue arose with some of the motifs in the books. Again, given the title, it will shock nobody that there is a lot of swan allusions/imagery in, um, The “Swan” Book. But it didn’t take long before I started wondering if I really needed quite so many so often. And then it didn’t take much longer before I stopped wondering and just started thinking, “No. No, I don’t.” And I won’t belabor the point with examples, but just say I had the same issue with character descriptions, interior monologues, dialogues, and set scenes. Far too often they all at one time or another (often multiple times for each) overstayed their welcome. I felt I was reading in circles.

The other half of my problem was that I just didn’t care. This probably was exacerbated by the above issues, but I just didn’t find myself caring at all what was happening or would happen with Oblivia Ethelyne (despite falling in love with her name immediately) or with the other major character who finally arrived near the halfway point, Warren Finch. To be a bit more clear, because horrific things happen in this book, both prior to its start and during — to individuals, to whole people — I cared about these things, was horrified by them, intellectually, but save for the woman who took Oblivia in (Aunty Bella Donna), none of these characters felt enough like actual people that I cared about emotionally. And to further clarify, “engaged” doesn’t mean I need to “like” a character; I just need to feel something — I’m fine if it’s horror, revulsion, dislike, or even indifference (a bare step above nothing).

Usually, with this sort of disconnect between so many elements I typically look for and a lack of engagement, I talk about how a book is more perhaps to be admired than enjoyed. But while I admired sporadic lines/paragraphs/images, I can’t say I admired the work as a whole. Which pains me to write because as I said at the start, I really wanted to like this story. And there were absolutely brilliant passages of gorgeous, inventive description or concepts. A great motif of the exile. Wonderful use of Story (and the conveyed importance of its power). Of symbol and metaphor. Lines of satire that nearly drip acid from the page. What pains me even more than giving a negative review despite these occasional flashes of brilliance is that I think in lots of ways The Swan Book is an important book in its focus on a long invisible, or tormented when they aren’t invisible, people. I’m glad it’s gotten the acclaim it has. I’m glad its found readers who trumpet its praises. I just wish I could have been one of them. DNF.

Published June 28, 2016. An inventive, cacophonous novel about an Aboriginal girl living in a future world turned upside down—where ancient myths exist side-by-side with present-day realities. Oblivia Ethelyne was given her name by an old woman who found her deep in the bowels of a gum tree, tattered and fragile, the victim of a brutal assault by wayward local youths. These are the years leading up to Australia’s third centenary, and the woman who finds her, Bella Donna of the Champions, is a refugee from climate change wars that devastated her country in the northern hemisphere. Bella Donna takes Oblivia to live with her on an old warship in a polluted dry swamp and there she fills Oblivia’s head with story upon story of swans. Fenced off from the rest of Australia by the Army, its traditional custodians left destitute, the swamp has become “the world’s most unknown detention camp” for Indigenous Australians. When Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia invades the swamp with his charismatic persona and the promise of salvation, Oblivia agrees to marry him, becoming First Lady, a role that has her confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. In this multilayered novel, winnter of the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal, Wright toys with the edges of the world we live in to offer us an intimate portrait of the realities facing Aboriginal people. We meet talking monkeys, genies with doctorates, spirit-guiding swans, and a whole cast of characters drawn from myth and legend and fairy tales. Through symbolism and a dazzling linguistic dexterity—the blending of words and phrases from high and low culture, from English, Aboriginal languages, French, and Latin—Wright beautifully demonstrates how the power of the human imagination can set us free.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I love the name “Oblivia Ethelyne,” which probably doesn’t come as a surprise. Even though you didn’t finish the book, what you described sounds so interesting that I’ll have to track a copy down and give it a shot, myself.

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