Rating: 5 stars
The Swan Book is the third novel by Alexis Wright and one of the most important in Australian literature. It has been described as a love story, a tragedy, a myth and a fairy tale. Categorised under speculative fiction it is a powerful, poetic, enchanting and baffling story about Indigenous Australians, where the reader never quite understands what is real.
As an Indigenous Australian woman Wright’s political intent is written in every line, highlighting the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians from Australian society. It calls into question the sovereignty of Aboriginal land, power structures, global migration and climate change.
Set in the post apocalyptic future in the author’s ancestral country, the Northern Territory of Australia, the story and its central preoccupations are summarised perfectly in this quotation at the end of the novel. This is helpful for tenacious readers who reached the end but remained confused!
‘a really deadly love story about a girl who has a virus living in some lolly pink prairie house in her brain – that made the world seem too large and jittery for her, and it stuffed up her relationships with her own people, and made her unsociable, but they say she loved the swans all the same. Poor old swanee. You can see the swans sometimes, but not around this place. It is a bit too hot and dry here…Maybe the Bujimala, the Rainbow Serpent , will start bringing in those cyclones and funneling sand mountains into the place. Swans might come back. Who knows what madness will be calling them in the end?’ p334
The Swan Book is very much about the fragility of the mind and the capacity for imagination. I read in a trance-like state, captivated by Wright’s poetic language, letting go of the need to know and understand everything and allowing the language to carry my along like a raft. Wright deliberately blurs what is real, what is imagined and what is part of an Aboriginal sense of reality; ‘dreamtime’ —a colonsier’s term, suggesting what is not real or conscious.
The protagonist, Oblivia (Oblivian Ethylene) is a psychologically damaged girl. Raped as a child, she lives as a recluse on a radioactive detention camp, abandoned her people, adopted by a European woman; Bella Donna of the Champions.
Wright presents an interesting link between the sovereignty of land and the sovereignty of mind. Oblivia’s relationship with country is very different to white Australians’. Land for Aboriginals is not just physical soil and earth, they use all of their senses — sound, feeling, song — to experience country. The land and the weather literally speak and interact with Oblivia. Ancestral land is not something to be owned, it is an integral part of their identity. This highlights the devastating, traumatic affect of displacement from their land.
‘a girl’s affair with the northern skies and her quest to regain sovereignty over her own brain…She is concerned with the human mind and its capacity to imagine, with the way stories are born from particular locales and yet can spread like viruses, travelling gypsy-like across the planet in the way of migratory birds, taking hold of minds in places they don’t belong. The Swan Book suggests that stories, their dissemination and cross pollination, bear upon the ability of Indigenous Australians to govern their own minds, and by extension their land (these are inextricably linked) – and that this has implication for the future of human life on Earth.’http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/going-viral/
The novel has also been called magical realism. Again this suggests that Aboriginal folklore and culture is ‘magical’ and unreal, whereas the literary subgenre ‘magical realism’, and the genre under which it sits; ‘Speculative Fiction’ — both constructed by westerners—suggest the western perspective is the ‘reality’.
Reality is complex and depends on perspective, of which there are many versions. Who has the authority to say what is reality? Usually the people who have the power – symbolised by the dispute over Warren Finch’s body between Aboriginals and settlers, which the settlers win by passing secret laws.
Given reading, writing and reality are experienced differently between the colonised and coloniser maybe we can’t fully understand the realities of Indigenous Australians because they are not explicable in terms we understand.
My advice is to read The Swan Book and be prepared for the surreal, for uncertainty. It deliberately entices the reader from enjoying a familiar, manageable story. Not a book to read absent-mindedly before dropping off to sleep, it forces the reader to engage with the text, providing an opportunity to question and learn — that’s not to say Wright has the perfect vision as an Aboriginal, but who does? It’s all a question of perspective.