The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
Alexis Wright’s new novel, the first since 2007’s Miles Franklin-winning Carpentaria, is a return to familiar stomping ground, and revolves around the mute Oblivia Ethylene as she traverses a landscape now ravaged and set adrift by climate change.
The story is set in a future dystopia that’s not wholly unfamiliar; these are ‘anti-halcyon times’. We meet Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, an old gypsy woman, who early on pulls a young Oblivia from the hollow of a tree. The pair return to Bella Donna’s rusted hulk, marooned in a swamp in an Indigenous compound, surveyed by white officials of the Army, and captained by the capricious half-caste, the Harbour Master, a healing guru of sorts. Oblivia exists here, on the vast littered lake, until the arrival of Warren Finch, Australia’s first Indigenous Prime Minister, who has come to take her as his wife: Oblivia, unknowingly, was promised to him by family law.
Outside this, it’s difficult to map the plot of The Swan Book: characters you thought were departed reappear, darting to and from the narrative with a startling assuredness that you wonder if you should have pre-empted their return. The border that marks myth from reality moves constantly. Nothing is certain.
The fragility of Oblivia’s mind is rendered exquisitely in the ever-shifting landscapes she inhabits, from the deserts plagued by a sea of rabbits, to flooded lawless cities. There are beautifully constructed passages where Wright positions the land like a living creature, volatile and moving with as much fierce energy as the operatic cast of characters.
Among many, we meet the three genies that mind Warren Smith, Rigoletto the talking monkey, and the Mechanic who looms in the apartment tower where Oblivia is abandoned after wedding Warren Smith. Their appearances, while at times chaotic in their coming and going, are perfectly cast, in the way they each present a glinting assessment of Oblivia’s situation, and the plight of this new world more broadly. Their dialogue, too, is joyous and darkly-comic. Bella Donna and the Harbour Master, particularly, share sage stories and bicker delightfully.
Wright’s prose is at times tricky to master; it requires a slow reading. There is nothing straightforward to be found here, and no clean resolution or singular climactic destination. Some readers will perhaps be left stranded: though for those that hold tight, the majesty of Wright’s storytelling, like the wisest of old tales, is the type that should be returned to again and again.
Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.